Fewer High-Schoolers Want to Go to College — but Not Every College Is in Decline

What can other schools learn from the success of institutions like Wyoming Catholic College, Belmont Abbey College and Thomas Aquinas College?

The Thomas Aquinas College Chapel in Santa Paula, California
The Thomas Aquinas College Chapel in Santa Paula, California (photo: Forestwalton / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The downward momentum for many four-year colleges and universities has continued to accelerate, and their decline can now also be measured in the attitudes of their customers. Less than half of post-pandemic high school students plan to enroll in their programs when they graduate. 

Last week, the non-profit ECMC Group released the surprising results of its most recent Question the Quo survey. The data shows that just 48% of teens are considering a four-year college after graduation. This represents a staggering drop of 23 percentage points since May 2020, the first months of the pandemic lockdowns, when 71% of students still planned to attend a four-year program. Perhaps surprisingly, only 65% of respondents said the cost of tuition and student debt was an important factor in their plans. Others cited the attraction of faster career paths.

The study took place among 14-18 year-olds in February 2020, May 2020, January 2021 and September 2021 and asked them questions about their attitudes, planning processes and perceptions of the pros and cons of a four-year college education.

The survey data also showed differences in thought between male and female, high-income and low-income students. However, the overall trend was the same across all demographic groups: four-year college is simply no longer the obvious choice for American high-schoolers.

The pandemic only accelerated an enrollment deficit pattern that stretches back to 2012: in the last two years, undergraduate enrollment has fallen 6.5% nationally (private colleges fared only slightly better than their public peer institutions).

In contrast, small Catholic colleges have seen an uptick in their numbers during this period of national decline. For example, Belmont Abbey College in Gaston County, North Carolina, cut its tuition by a third in 2013, pushing its enrollment from just 900 in 2014 to 1,467 in 2021. Wyoming Catholic College, which touts its 2020 in-person graduation in its promotional materials, has nearly doubled its enrollment since 2010 and even saw increases over the last two years.

Objectors will point out that Wyoming Catholic College’s growth is, in a sense, a false example, since the school opened its doors just 14 years ago, enjoys an isolated location far from COVID-infested cities, and therefore had more opportunity for rapid growth than other schools.

The fact remains, however, that both schools (as well as other growing four-year Catholic institutions such as Thomas Aquinas College) are demolishing the larger trends in education. Furthermore, the students who enroll in these schools have adopted very different attitudes from the overwhelming majority of their peers who are rejecting the traditional, four-year path.

What can other schools learn from the success of these smaller institutions?

First, each institution has a strong sense of a unifying identity and mission. Their reason for existence, the faculty they hire, and their willingness to stand apart from peer institutions in their operational models place them definitively outside the mainstream during a time when high-school students are clearly looking outside of the mainstream.

St. John Henry Newman described his own society’s disdain for the university as a useless project for most citizens:

The charge brought against its studies was their remoteness from the occupations and duties of life, to which they are the formal introduction, or, in other words, their inutility; in the latter, it was their connexion with a particular form of belief, or, in other words, their religious exclusiveness.

Schools such as Wyoming Catholic, Belmont Abbey’s Honors College and Thomas Aquinas make these two charges their boast.

Second, and stemming from the first, these successful colleges have found a way to reach Gen Z high-school students — the very demographic that doubts the value of their programs — and recruit young men and women willing to devote four years to study and formation in their halls.

As the ECMC survey shows, finances are an important, but not the only factor in post-high school planning: current American high schoolers want a faster track to making money. Successful undergraduate institutions will either cater to less-expensive, career or technical training tracks or convincingly articulate the value of four years of a truly liberal education. Some schools, such a Magdalen College in New Hampshire with its Career Pathways Program, are trying to do both.

Catholic families and formators should be aware of these trends in mainstream education and be able to compare mainstream colleges and universities with schools committed to a faithful Catholic education. While not every child is best served by a four-year liberal arts degree, no Catholic teen should dismiss four-year institutions without understanding the possibilities offered by uniquely and truly Catholic formation. Mainstream schools may be in a death spiral, but there is light in the darkness if we are willing to look.