The proportion of new U.S. high school graduates who go on to college — a figure that rose regularly for decades — now appears to be declining.
In October, 65.9 percent of people who had graduated from high school the previous spring had enrolled in college, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said this week. That was down from 66.2 percent the previous year and was the lowest figure in a decade. The high came in 2009, when 70.1 percent of new graduates had gone on to college.
“Falling college enrollment indicates that upward mobility may become more difficult for working-class and disadvantaged high school graduates,” said Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. “It’s another part of the long-term scarring process of the Great Recession that has been partly hidden.”
She said that might reflect poorer employment prospects for parents and students who would have worked their way through college a few years ago, and added that many parents in the past had obtained money for college by refinancing mortgages, an alternative no longer available to many families.
At the same time, there were some encouraging signs in the report, which is released annually. The bureau reported that 51 percent of the high school graduates who did not go on to college had jobs by October, and that 74 percent were in the labor force, meaning they either were employed or were looking for work.
Those figures may not sound high, but they are up from the past couple of years and may be an indication that the labor market has improved a little.
On the other hand, only 43 percent of new high school dropouts were part of the labor force in October, a figure that was the lowest for the past 20 years, the period for which the figures are available. But there was an increase in the proportion of new high school dropouts who had jobs, to 31 percent from 24 percent in 2012, which could be another indication of an improving economy.
The figures are volatile, but there seems to be little doubt that the long-term trend of more high school graduates going to college has halted, if not reversed. As recently as 1976, the enrollment figure was less than 50 percent. It rose to 69 percent by 2005 and has fluctuated since.