With graduation season here, many students will be preparing for their next big move – whether that’s college, grad school, the workforce, or perhaps none of the above. Higher ed experts have sounded the alarm about a coming “enrollment cliff,” when college enrollment across the U.S. is expected to decline significantly by 2025, which is thought to be brought on by a mix of economic uncertainty, financial concern, declining birth rate, and a shifting job market. Despite the warnings, recent reports have indicated that spring semester enrollment at colleges was higher than last year, but still trails behind pre-pandemic numbers.

What can CivicScience consumer data tell us about college intent among Americans?

A general look at college education plans show that close to 1-in-5 young adults aged 18-24 say they plan to pursue a bachelor’s degree, but this is down three points from last year. Plans for master’s and doctoral degrees are also down year-over-year, while associate’s degrees are up, in line with reports that community colleges led the recent spike in college enrollment.

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Declining higher ed plans among young adults reflect skepticism surrounding the value of a traditional college degree, which has not changed much from last year. Excluding those without an opinion, U.S. adults are evenly split on whether or not the cost of a bachelor’s degree is worthwhile. Opinions among Gen Z adults aged 18-24 are more positive. They are still more likely to think that a bachelor’s degree is worth the cost.

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Nuances exist. Excluding those without an opinion, a slim majority of adults now view the cost of an online degree as a worthwhile investment, compared to a traditional 4-year bachelor’s program. Gen Z adults are far more likely to agree – 61% say online degrees are worth the cost, up seven points from last year.

Most people today do not think a college degree is necessary for success. Despite data that show people with bachelor’s degrees earn 50% more on average than high school graduates without a bachelor’s, just 24% of the Gen Pop believe a college degree is an important factor that leads to a successful career. That’s down from 26% in 2023 and 29% in 2022.

Cost and student loan debt are the biggest barriers.

Increasingly pessimistic attitudes toward college in the United States are influenced by the skyrocketing cost of education, rising cost of living, student loan lending practices, an uncertain job market for recent grads, and the student loan debt crisis that continues to impact borrowers. A separate poll found that 50% of Gen Z adults (18-24) who don’t have a college degree and don’t plan to get one cite the cost of college and student loan debt as the leading reasons they would not pursue a degree with a college or university – and an additional 19% cite job market and income concerns.

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But what about those with degrees? For respondents who have pursued a degree, opinions on college are far more positive, even among those with student loan debt. Data show U.S. adults with student loan debt are far more likely than those without debt to see the cost of a bachelor’s degree as worthwhile. Likewise, people with just bachelor’s degrees are more likely than those without one to think 4-year college degrees are worth the cost.

In the post-Covid economy, attitudes toward college continue to sour, influencing career plans among the prime college-age crowd. Given that attitudes change before behaviors do, this could mean big changes for colleges and universities, the job market, and the economy ahead.

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