College Enrollment among Recent High School Grads Declined Again in 2023

by Jessica Nelson

June 20, 2024

College enrollment among recent high school graduates fell to 61.4% in 2023, a drop of 4.8 percentage points from the rate in 2019, prior to the pandemic. For the 15-year span preceding the pandemic, the overall share of recent high school graduates that were attending college by October of the year they graduated hovered between 66% and 70%. The 2023 college enrollment rate is the lowest since 1990.

While it might make logical sense to think that enrollment rates of recent high school graduates would depend to some degree on the business cycle, in the last couple of decades the decision to attend college immediately after high school doesn’t appear to change much in economic expansions versus recessions. Even the pandemic, which moved so much training online, only caused a dip of a few percentage points in the overall share of recent grads attending college. However, the labor market experiences of recent high school graduates vary considerably with the strength or weakness of the economy, with young people graduating from high school during recessions facing much higher unemployment rates and more difficulty finding work, regardless of college enrollment.

Between January and October 2023, 3.1 million young people in the United States graduated from high school. Another 614,000 young people dropped out of high school between October 2022 and October 2023. Of those who graduated, 1.9 million (61.4%) enrolled in college by October 2023, with 1.8 million enrolling full time. Most enrolled in four-year colleges (1.4 million). These numbers come from the Current Population Survey produced by the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is the same survey that establishes the unemployment rates and labor force participation rates for the nation, states, and local areas. 

Reversal in Long-Term College Enrollment Growth Trend

College enrollment rates plateaued for about fifteen years leading up to the pandemic, remaining in a range between 66% and 70% through 2019. Each year since the pandemic enrollment has fallen, reversing what had been a long-term trend of increasing college enrollment since the 1960s.

Back in 1960, fewer than half (45%) of recent high school graduates enrolled in college by the fall following graduation. By 1970, just over half of recent graduates were enrolled. The numbers dipped back below the 50% mark through the early 1970s, but by the early 1980s the share rose above 50% and kept on rising. In 1990, the share of recent high school grads enrolled in college reached 60%. It’s stayed between 60% and 70% ever since, although the 2023 enrollment rate of 61.4% is the lowest since 1990 and about 5 percentage points lower than enrollment just before the pandemic.
Graph showing Fewer Recent U.S. High School Graduates Enroll in College by October after Graduation

Among recent high school graduates, women have long had higher college enrollment than men, a trend that’s held since the 1990s. In the decade before the pandemic, enrollment in the October after high school graduation averaged 64% among men and 72% among women. Since the pandemic, enrollment declined about the same amount for both men and women. Men’s decline was steeper in 2020 and 2021, but enrollment among men had rebounded more than among women by 2023.

The share of students choosing to attend four-year colleges and two-year colleges has mostly stayed in a tight range over the years. Of the 66% to 70% of high school graduates that enroll in college by the fall following graduation, most enroll in four-year colleges. This group tends to make up a little more than 40% of the most recent year’s graduating class (46% in 2023). Those enrolling in two-year colleges typically account for about one-quarter of recent graduates. However, the share enrolling at two-year colleges has dropped each year since 2020, and in 2023, 16% of recent graduates enrolled at two-year colleges. A strong economy may be drawing some youth into employment who may otherwise have chosen further training at a local community college or training program.

Dropping out of high school can have long-lasting economic consequences for an individual and their community. But despite the risks, some high school students drop out of school each year. Dropouts make up the smallest share of exits from United States high schools, but their numbers are still sizeable. In the five years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, an average of 516,000 young people dropped out of high school each year. In 2023, the number of dropouts reached 614,000, its first time above 600,000 since 1995.

This cohort of young people dealt with all the changes, challenges, and uncertainties of a global pandemic early in their high school careers. They also saw more opportunities for early employment and earnings as the job market heated up in recovery from the pandemic. Their experience is difficult to compare with the typical graduating class over the past couple of decades. It remains to be seen whether the increase in dropouts will hold over the next couple of years or return to expectations prior to the pandemic.
Graph showing College Enrollment Shows Consistent Pattern among Recent High School Graduates

Outside of the shock of a global pandemic, the strength of the current job market doesn’t appear to affect a recent graduate’s college enrollment choices, or at least not for most youth. With the much-vaunted value of postsecondary education in the job market, including higher average pay, lower unemployment rates, and increased job satisfaction, the decision to enroll in college is about more than last month’s unemployment rate. Enrollment rates move up or down year by year, but most of the time these moves don’t match up well with times of recession and expansion in the overall economy. For instance, enrollment of recent high school graduates moved very little in the depths of the Great Recession in 2009. Just a few percentage points separate enrollment in 2009 and 2010 from the rates in 2017 and 2018, when unemployment rates were near record lows. Students and their parents likely view the decision to enroll in college, or not to enroll, with a longer-term lens.

Business Cycle Matters

While overall rates of college enrollment directly after high school graduation don’t appear to be affected by current strength or weakness in the economy, youth face very different job market outcomes in recession versus expansion. Young workers enjoyed the fruits of a strong economy in the years leading up to the pandemic, with unemployment near record lows. In the pandemic recession, younger workers were heavily affected by job losses and reduced hours, because their employment is more concentrated in lower-wage, entry-level jobs that were the first to go at the onset of the pandemic. By 2023, unemployment rates were once again near historic lows.

We can see these larger trends at work in the details about the experiences of recent high school graduates. Labor force participation doesn’t vary much in times of expansion and recession. About half of recent high school graduates have been in the labor force throughout the last decade. In 2023, 48% of recent graduates were in the labor force. Half of young men who’d recently graduated were in the labor force compared with 45% of young women. One-third of college enrolled recent graduates were in the labor force in 2023, compared with 38% prior to the recession.

Those who aren’t enrolled in college are far more likely to be in the labor force. In both 2019 and 2023, the share of not enrolled recent graduates participating in the labor force was about double that of recent graduates who had enrolled in college. Among enrolled graduates, students who are going to college part time are much more likely to participate in the labor force than their peers who are attending college full time. In 2023, half of students enrolled in two-year colleges were in the labor force compared with 26% of those enrolled in four-year colleges. Labor force participation among graduates who chose two-year colleges in 2023 was similar to the rate in 2019, while participation decreased since the pandemic among those who chose four-year colleges.
Table showing Labor Market Outcomes for Recent U.S. High School Graduates, 2019 vs. 2023

Recent high school graduates entering the job market during expansions generally have much better chances of landing a job than those who graduate during recession. Back in 2009, recent high school graduates faced an unemployment rate of 28%. The overall U.S. unemployment rate in 2009 and 2010 was above 9%. In 2018 and 2019, unemployment rates were near record lows across the economy, at about 4%. Recent high school graduates in 2018 and 2019 had a much higher unemployment rate, at 14% and 15%, respectively, but the rate was half the 2009 peak. The pandemic recession caused a slight increase in unemployment among recent graduates, with 17% of recent grads who were in the labor force unemployed in 2020, and the rate retreated to 16% in 2023.

While fewer recent graduates who are enrolled in college participate in the labor force, they seem to have more success in their job searches than young people who aren’t enrolled in college the October after graduation. College enrolled graduates averaged 13% unemployment in 2023, compared with 11% unemployment in 2019.

Unemployment rates were higher for not enrolled recent graduates prior to the pandemic, at 18% in both 2019 and 2023. The gap between not enrolled young men and women is large. Young men who weren’t enrolled in college by October after graduation had a 24% unemployment rate prior to the pandemic as well as after the pandemic in 2023. Among young women who weren’t enrolled, the unemployment rate dropped from 12% in 2019 to 9% in 2023.

The number of dropouts in 2023 exceeded 600,000 for the first time since 1995. Labor force participation and unemployment rates among 2023 dropouts are much higher than prior to the pandemic. In 2023, 44% of those who dropped out of high school were in the labor force and they had an unemployment rate of 24%. Both men and women who had dropped out endured high unemployment rates in 2023.

While this cohort of recent high school graduates experienced the least typical conditions possible during high school with the interruptions of the pandemic, they made similar choices overall in terms of enrolling in college compared with the cohort that graduated in 2019. Since that time, the enrollment rate among recent grads dropped by 4.8 percentage points. Taking a more long-term view, the times of swift increases in college enrollment among recent high school graduates appear to have ended. College enrollment was pretty steady over the 20 years preceding the pandemic. The choice to attend college directly after high school doesn’t appear to be swayed by current economic conditions, which makes sense, as the benefits of a college degree last a lifetime.

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