In fall 2021, undergraduate enrollment at colleges fell by 3.1%, or 465,300 students, according to a new report by National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Overall enrollment at higher education institutions has declined by 5.1%, or nearly 1 million students, since fall 2019.

While the COVID-19 pandemic is partially to blame for declining college enrollment, multiple other factors are contributing to young adults’ decisions to delay or skip college. That’s according to a new survey of 1,250 18-24 year-olds who aren’t currently enrolled in a higher education institution.

In January, asked these young adults why they aren’t currently attending college, what they’re doing instead, and if they have any plans to pursue higher education in the future.

Key Findings

  • 51% of non-college educated recent high school grads never attended college, while 49% are drop-outs
  • 34% of 18-24 year-olds who aren’t currently enrolled in college can’t afford it; 29% say it’s a waste of money
  • Nearly 9 in 10 Gen Zers are educating themselves through alternative means like YouTube videos, certificate programs, and internships
  • 48% of non-enrolled young adults joined the workforce instead of going to college

Half of young adults who aren’t currently attending college are drop-outs

Eighteen-to-24-year-olds who aren’t currently enrolled in a higher education institution, and don’t have a college degree, are nearly evenly split between those who never attended college (51%), and those who dropped out (49%).

Thirty-nine percent of individuals who’ve never attended college didn’t apply to any schools for the 2021-22 academic year. Thirty-three percent applied to colleges, but weren’t accepted anywhere. Twenty-eight percent applied to colleges and were accepted to at least one school, although they ended up not enrolling.

Finances biggest roadblock to young adults enrolling in college

As college costs continue to rise, financial hurdles are proving insurmountable for many potential students.

Thirty-four percent of young adults who aren’t currently enrolled in college say it’s because they can’t afford it. Rather than spend money on education, 31% of respondents chose to start working full-time.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is also a barrier to Gen Zers attending college. Thirty-one percent of respondents cited continuing pandemic-related uncertainty and disruptions as a reason why they didn’t apply to or enroll in college this academic year.

Attitudes about higher education are also influencing the decision to skip college for young adults. Twenty-nine percent of college-age Americans say college is both a waste of money, and that a college education isn’t necessary to get a good job.

According to admissions consultant Beata Williams, it’s not surprising that potential students are seriously weighing the financial burdens of obtaining a college degree.

“Our current landscape calls for a re-evaluation of traditional college education,” Williams says. “In my opinion, tuition expenses at many higher education institutions are often aligned with the end results of career prospects and salaries. This is especially true for students who receive financial assistance through loans.”

86% of recent high school grads pursuing education through alternative means

However, not attending college doesn’t mean that recent high school graduates aren’t interested in learning. Eighty-six percent of respondents are using some type of alternative means to further their education.

YouTube videos are the most popular way to learn, with 26% of respondents turning to the site as a way of gaining new knowledge and skills.

Other popular means of self-education include reading online materials (24%), internships (23%), certificate programs (23%), and bootcamps (23%).

These alternative education paths have their benefits and disadvantages, according to Williams.
“​​Learning via YouTube videos, online materials, bootcamps, and similar avenues can be very effective and efficient,” she says. “However, online programming doesn’t provide the engagement, collaboration and networking opportunities that physical, in-person settings offer. For students entering the workforce, in-person opportunities are crucial for networking and establishing professional relationships.”

2 in 5 young adults anticipate enrolling in college in the future

In a spot of hope for higher education, 38% of respondents indicate that they plan to enroll in college at some point in the future.

Another 32% are undecided about whether they will attend college. Meanwhile, 30% of 18-24 year-olds who aren’t currently attending college don’t ever plan to seek higher education.

For some young adults who aren’t in college right now, it may be necessary for them to pursue the careers they want. The top industries that interest these Gen Zers include business and finance (25%), healthcare (25%), media and communications (25%), computer and information technology (24%), and food and hospitality (24%).

Taking time between high school graduation and starting college is commonly known as a gap year, and does have its advantages.
“Students who don’t have a clear focus or direction, or simply don’t feel ready for a college experience can benefit greatly from taking a gap year,” WIlliams says. “A gap year grants students permission to explore many options. They can create a highly individualized plan for themselves in which they can gain a diverse array of knowledge, skills and experience.”

However, Williams warns, “The potential disadvantage of a gap year is that students may lack passion or self-motivation to fully engage in activities that add value to their knowledge and skill set, thus not making the most of this time.”

Half of young adults who are skipping college head straight into workforce

If recent high school graduates aren’t enrolling in college, what are they doing? The most popular alternative is working. Eighteen percent of young adults who didn’t attend college this year are working full-time, while 17% work part-time, and 13% are starting their own businesses.

Twenty percent of these individuals are currently unemployed. Seventeen percent opted to join the military instead of or before attending college.

39% of non-enrolled Gen Zers working to support themselves, their family

Thirty-nine percent of young adults who joined the workforce instead of attending college did so to financially support themselves or their families.

Thirty-one percent of these individuals say they prefer hands-on learning over studying in a classroom setting. Thirty percent wanted to get more life and work experience before going to college.

Twenty-eight percent of respondents who chose work over college cited recent labor shortages as a reason behind their decision.


All data found within this report derives from a survey commissioned by and conducted online by survey platform Pollfish. In total, we surveyed 1,250 Americans ages 18-24 years old who aren’t currently enrolled in a higher education institution. Appropriate respondents were found via a screening question, and using Pollfish’s demographic selection tools. This survey was conducted over a two-day span, starting on January 21, 2022, and ending on January 22, 2022. All respondents were asked to answer all questions truthfully and to the best of their abilities. Any questions can be directed to [email protected].