The COVID-19 pandemic is changing society in far-reaching ways. There's a rise in remote work and delivery services, and for members of Generation Z, there's a sudden drop in interest around four-year colleges and universities.
At least, that's what Minneapolis-based educational nonprofit ECMC Group found in its multiphase survey of high school students over the past year. Almost a quarter of those questioned said the pandemic had made them "more likely to attend a career and technical education school" than college.
Gen Z holds a broader view of work, education
All current high school students fall into the Gen Z bracket, typically defined as people born between 1997 and 2012. Recent research has shown this generation to have a different outlook than earlier generations regarding work and school. For example, Gen Zers tend to prioritize workforce diversity when looking for a job.
On the school front, the ECMC research found that Gen Z members are generally open to postsecondary education other than college — 61% said they thought a "skill-based education," such as coding boot camp, nursing school or similar option, was a sensible choice. Similarly, 45% said it "makes sense" to consider an education program that's two years or less.
This broad acceptance of professional training outside the university system goes against the trend in recent years of more Americans getting a bachelor's degree. This change in attitude appears to be due to the ongoing pandemic as well as a fear of student loan debt.
Student loans, pandemic may make four-year schools less attractive
When asked what worries them most about college, a full 50% of the high school students surveyed pointed to "graduating with a high amount of debt." At the same time, 44% feared they wouldn't be able to find an adequate job after graduation.
While the student loan crisis existed long before the COVID-19 outbreak, the pandemic has only added to these concerns. More than half (53%) of the respondents said the impact of the COVID-19 crisis has made them more worried about their future, at least in terms of their education plans.
And almost a third (29%) specifically blamed the pandemic's financial impact for making it less likely that they would choose a four-year university education.
Some high school students support government relief
With concerns over the cost of college running rampant, it's not a big surprise that half of the high school students polled said the federal or state government "should provide additional money to pay off student loans."
However, when it came to whether taxpayers should subsidize college costs or pay off existing debt for past students, just 39% were in favor. This roughly matched the number of respondents who said employers — or "companies" in general — should either provide a college education for their staff (38%) or help pay off their student loans (37%).
Such concerns are understandable, given the high levels of student debt faced by many Americans. And yet, college doesn't have to end in a mountain of debt. Focusing on getting as many scholarships and grants as possible (using search tools such as Scholly or Fastweb), could lower the cost dramatically.
Students who do end up with student loans should contact their loan servicer and a financial aid advisor to get an idea of the special repayment plans and student loan forgiveness programs out there. Such options are often available for both four-year universities and one-year certificate programs at trade schools.
Methodology: The research above was conducted by Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC) Group and VICE Media Group in a series of three national surveys called "Question the Quo." The first survey, conducted on Feb. 25–March 2, 2020, polled 1,177 high school students; the second, on May 14–20, 2020, polled 1,025 high school students; and the third survey, on Jan. 4–19, 2021, polled 1,001 high school students.