Most high school students want to attend college. Why are so many opting out?

A report by the nonprofit organization YouthTruth examining the survey responses of 25,000 high school seniors from the Class of 2023 finds that 74% of respondents want to attend college; however, only 66% of respondents said they expected to attend, Higher Ed Dive reports. Experts say this “aspiration” and “expectation” mismatch has worsened in recent years because of the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on students’ academic preparedness and mental health.

“There’s this durable gap between aspirations and expectations that has not recovered through the pandemic,” Jennifer De Forest, the report’s lead author and director of organizational learning and communications at YouthTruth, tells NBC News. “For kids who have less options, less capital … they’re the ones who are finding less opportunity.”

Gaps vary across demographic groups

The report found that the nature of—and gaps between—students’ college-going aspirations and their expectations varied by race and gender. There was a 32-percentage-point difference in the interest demonstrated by Asian or Asian American students, the group most likely to report wanting to attend college (90%), and Native American/Alaska Native/Indigenous students, who were least likely to say they want to enroll (58%). While 85% of Asian or Asian American students expected to attend college, just 44% of American Indian/Alaska Native/Indigenous students said the same. Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students, Latine students, male students, and students who prefer to self-identify also showed larger-than-average gaps between their college aspirations and their expectations.

Researchers say this kind of mismatch can lead to “quixotic hope.” Students whose educational aspirations exceed their low expectations of realizing those goals experience higher rates of depression, highlighting the need to meaningfully increase access and affordability when encouraging students to aspire to a higher level of education. 

“The large themes were students, particularly Black and Hispanic…wanting more end-to-end support through the process of understanding how college works, how to choose college—not just the application process,” De Forest said, according to NBC News. “They need the whole system demystified.”

More troubling trends

These findings come as another report shows that a growing share of high school students feel unprepared for college and are opting not to enroll, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. In its annual survey of 20,000 high schoolers, the education research and consulting firm EAB found that “Gen P” students—those whose college-going plans were influenced by the pandemic—experienced worsening mental health due to social isolation and increased use of social media to fill the void. This year, 22% of respondents who decided not to attend college immediately after high school said they did so because they were “not mentally ready” for it, up from 14% who reported feeling that way in EAB’s 2019 and 2021 surveys. 

Cost concerns also are deterring students from enrolling in college. Twenty percent of students who weren’t planning to attend college immediately after high school said that “college isn’t worth the cost,” an increase from 2021’s 17% and a surge from 8% in 2019.

Among students who planned to attend college immediately after graduating high school, mental health and well-being, affordability, and overall college success were their top three concerns. A larger share of first-generation students said they were “not mentally ready” for college (28%) than their continuing-generation counterparts (20%). That feeling of unpreparedness, especially among first-generation and low-income students resulted from their limited college preparation, their lack of campus visits, and difficulties covering college costs, Hope Krutz, president of EAB’s enrollment division, tells The Chronicle

“I believe there’s a pretty long hangover from COVID,” Krutz explains. “Students that are coming to us are less prepared, but it’s not their fault. This is a systemic issue, not a personal one.”

To address these issues, the EAB report suggests colleges talk to students and their families about their concerns and ensure they are aware of available mental health, academic, and career resources.

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