During the spring semester this year, there were 5% fewer undergraduates students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities than in the spring of 2020. It may be easy to point to the pandemic or shifting demographics to explain the decline; but those phenomena don’t tell the whole story. Many Americans began questioning the value of higher education long before 2020 – and the same issues that gave rise to those concerns are only more pervasive today.

Around 35% percent of Americans decide not to pursue higher education because they don’t believe they meet the academic standards required for acceptance. This number mirrors the percentage of high school graduates who failed to meet a single ACT benchmark for college readiness in 2018 – and it speaks volumes about the number of young people left out of higher education before costs or return on investment even enter into the equation.

Given all of this, perhaps we shouldn’t be asking the question: “Is college worth it?” Instead, maybe we should be thinking through the best ways to help students determine a path forward that works best for them—whether that means college, a career right out of high school, or entering the military. Here are some considerations to keep in mind:


Keep costs down by helping students hit the ground running

When 35% of high school graduates aren’t meeting benchmarks for college readiness, the challenge isn’t just related to performance; it’s also about cost. Prior to the pandemic, a study of 200 campuses across the country showed that more than half of incoming freshman were required to take remedial classes before moving on to college-level coursework.

That means more time spent in college, and more tuition dollars out-of-pocket (an average of $3,000 for every student enrolled in a remedial class). At a time when tuition costs are top of mind for many students and their families, we need to realize that matriculating students who aren’t ready doesn’t just impact their ability to finish college; it impacts their ability to earn a degree on time and on budget.

Strengthen partnerships between K-12 and higher education institutions

John Thrasher, who served as president of Florida State University from 2014 to 2021, recently told me about an initiative developed during his tenure that’s having a big impact on student success. It’s called the CARE Program, and it provides promising students from underserved communities with the chance to learn more about the college process and invites them to explore the FSU campus. When participating students eventually enroll in classes at FSU, they boast an average graduation rate of more than 80 percent. This is just one example of many that demonstrates the power of partnerships between K-12 and higher education institutions. However, these kinds of partnerships should be the norm; not the exception.

Draw clearer connections between higher education and the workforce

Most students have no clear idea about the variety of opportunities that await them after high school. That’s why encouraging interested highschoolers to participate in dual enrollment classes can help them gain necessary exposure to college-level courses. Career learning coursework can also help students pinpoint specific industries and jobs they may be passionate about.

Hands-on learning experiences like internships, job shadowing opportunities, and apprenticeships can build on this sense of exposure. What’s more, these programs increase the chances of landing a good job upon graduation. So whether a student decides to attend college or not, career learning and dual enrollment programs can help them save money and time in the long term.

The value is there, but students need to see it

When we take steps to make learning—at all stages—more accessible, more affordable, and more closely connected to the careers of tomorrow, we help students view their future as a series of opportunities instead of challenges. It’s up to each of us to ensure that students seize these opportunities, and put them to good use for our country’s shared benefit.