Why Gen Z is turning away from the traditional four-year college path

They may turn away from the traditional four-year college path to attend two-year schools or start careers that don’t require degrees.

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Most people view their high school graduation as a stepping stone to higher education. Going to college may seem like the only option, but one in five Gen Z students would rather skip college altogether. Many reasons weigh heavily on their minds as they seek futures that don’t require a four-year bachelor’s degree.

1. It’s too expensive

Money is likely the first concern on students’ minds when thinking about attending a university. The average four-year public university sends graduates out into the world with at least $28,800 in student loan debt, depending on their degree.

Young people then face the issue of interest rates, which add significant monthly payment fees that prevent graduates from chipping away at the original amount of their loans. Many spend decades paying tens of thousands of dollars interest that costs more than their entire education. 

More young people would likely consider the traditional college path if the U.S. had publicly funded higher education. No matter what degree they picked, they’d graduate with a better quality of life because they’d have no student debt. Until then, future generations will likely continue turning away from four-year degrees.

2. Other educational opportunities exist

Young people are also aware of other educational opportunities that may not have been as widely available for the generations before them. Many two-year colleges now have websites and programs advertised widely on social media platforms. They’re easily accessible by being a single click away, so students can find all the information they need to compare options.

Instead of spending four years studying for an expensive degree and a lifetime of debt, students who attend two-year colleges pay an average of $3,440 per year for tuition and fees. There are also significant discounts and scholarship programs for young people with little financial support. It’s easier to get that help because these schools are smaller, so fewer people apply for assistance.

Two-year colleges are also closer to home. Moving to another city or state is an additional expense that can prevent people from going to a university. Two-year colleges in smaller towns make higher education more accessible to Gen Zers who need to live at home after high school graduation.

3. Trades jobs guarantee livable income

Imagine going to a university to become a veterinarian. The average entry-level vet technician job pays around $37,341 per year, which may not be enough to cover the cost of living and student debt payments in major cities. However, a standard skilled trade job would come with a $42,322 annual salary and zero student debt.

Gen Zers know they can find trade jobs like plumber and electrician positions, receive on-the-job training and make a livable wage immediately. There’s no need to start earning very little in the hopes of climbing a career ladder and eventually having enough financial room to breathe.

4. COVID-19 changed the college landscape

Many universities shut down when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Students had to go home after paying for an entire semester of housing and a meal plan. Some classes were delayed because they struggled to adapt to a virtual classroom. It set many students back and added more debt to what they had already accrued.

Young people view four-year degrees as riskier in a world where COVID-19 can still disrupt the school calendar. Two-year colleges are faster, closer to home and more affordable, making them a better option for many high school graduates.

5. They can launch careers at home

There are a few reasons why Gen Zers may skip college to start careers at home. They know how to work social media platforms, so becoming an influencer and making $1,420 per month with a 10,000-person following sounds simple. If their following expands, the same research shows that a person could make $15,356 per month with a 1 million-person following.

Whether someone decides to stream themselves playing video games or tweet viral jokes, they can make a livable income without college. They also won’t have to risk their safety by leaving home.

Gen Zers grew up with active shooter drills every semester in high school, if not every month. They may skip another four years of spending time in a classroom setting if they survived a school shooting and have PTSD or have anxiety about possibly being involved in a future dangerous situation. Becoming an influencer or launching a virtual brand from home may stem from safety concerns.

6. The future holds different jobs

Money is likely the first concern on students’ minds when considering attending a university. About 85% of 2030 jobs don’t exist yet, so why go to college for a degree you may not use? Gen Zers keep this in mind when weighing their educational options. If they ever fall in love with a new career path that does require a radically different degree, they can sign up for online courses that fit their post-high-school-graduation routine.

Gen Z has a bright future

Young people feel encouraged when they realize how many options they have to craft a lifestyle they will enjoy. They may turn away from the traditional four-year college path to attend two-year schools or start careers that don’t require degrees. These factors are some of the top issues on their minds as they decide what they want to do with their lives.

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