Each year, Pennsylvania high schools ask their graduates if they’re going to college. Back in 2005, they overwhelmingly said yes — about 72% planned to. But in the years since, that percentage has taken a sharp fall, to just 60% among the class of 2022. 

The drop comes as the American public increasingly sours on higher education, according to some surveys. The national shift is likely driven by concerns over the cost of college and doubts about the value of a degree, both real and perceived. As the class of 2024 prepares to make big decisions about their futures, with deadlines for college applications beginning this month, these factors could shape their choices. 

Allegheny County has seen a similar downward trend in college-bound graduates since 2005, though there was a slight increase in 2022. The rate varies across districts, and disparities sometimes fall along racial and socioeconomic lines. While nearly all 2022 graduates in the predominantly white, wealthier Upper St. Clair School District said they plan to enroll, less than half did in the Sto-Rox School District, where a majority of students at the high school are Black and about 90% are low-income, according to state data.

Over the last four decades, the average amount undergraduates paid in tuition, fees, room and board grew by 169% when accounting for inflation, while the average earnings of workers ages 22 to 27 grew by only 19%. Student loan debt has nearly tripled since 2007. And in Pennsylvania, declining state investment in higher education has made its public universities some of the priciest in the U.S. for local families.

“When I first started here, usually with the state aid that they would get, the state schools were affordable,” said Joe Herzing, a longtime counselor at Sto-Rox Junior-Senior High School. Now, after students receive financial aid, “they’re still several thousands of dollars short, and that they don’t have.”

The price tag of a degree has likely dampened the public’s view of the necessity of higher education. While nearly three-quarters of young adults viewed college as “very important” in 2013, only 41% did in 2019, according to Gallup. In the Pittsburgh area, about half of surveyed adults would recommend vocational or technical training over college, WESA reported in late September. 

Some colleges and universities in Pennsylvania are already facing enrollment headwinds, and the state is projected to see its traditional college-age population shrink by 12% from 2013 to 2029. Fewer students choosing to attend college could exacerbate this trend, potentially to the detriment of these institutions. 

Sometimes, perception is everything

Akil Bello, senior director of advocacy and advancement at FairTest, said he wasn’t surprised by the county’s general decline in college-bound high schoolers. The public messaging around college has become increasingly grim, he said, with hyperbolic narratives taking hold about student debt and the opportunities that are available without a degree. 

There are the articles about “The Richest Americans Who Never Went To College” and the woman who donated her eggs seven times and still has $50,000 in student loan debt. There’s billionaire Peter Thiel’s 2011 creation of the Thiel Fellowship, which provides young adults with $100,000 over two years to start a company – if they “skip or stop out of college.” 

The steady arguments for higher education don’t generate the same excitement, Bello said. “There are no big, splashy narratives that say, ‘Going to college is good.’ So it’s still really just the same narrative that’s been said forever, which is essentially, ‘College eventually pays more,’” he said. 

While the return has shrunk, the case can still be made. A wage premium still exists for people with college degrees. But even that story is getting complicated, as new research from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis finds that the lifetime wealth benefits are falling.

Some counselors across the county are seeing the reality and perception of college affordability impact students’ attitudes and choices. 

Joe Herzing, a longtime counselor at Sto-Rox Junior-Senior High School, talks to PublicSource in the school’s cafeteria on Monday, Oct. 16, 2023, in McKees Rocks.
Student Jaymes-Cameil Bulls zips up her backpack after a recruiting session for The Pennsylvania State University in the school’s cafeteria that day. (Photos by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource).

Herzing has been a counselor at Sto-Rox since 2005. He encourages students to apply to colleges regardless of the cost of attendance  – “You can’t predict what scholarship might pop up,” he said – but he’s frequently seen prices determine where students end up.

The share of Sto-Rox students who say they plan to enroll in college after graduation has varied over the years, according to the school district’s self-reported data. Students like senior Jaymes-Cameil Bulls want to go to college, but in her case, she’s unsure how she’ll navigate the cost of attendance.

The share of Sto-Rox students who say they plan to enroll in college after graduation has varied over the years, according to the school district’s self-reported data. Students like senior Jaymes-Cameil Bulls want to go to college, but in her case, she’s unsure how she’ll navigate the cost of attendance. 

“I went on a little scholarship spree,” said Bulls, adding that she applied to about 15 that she found through an Internet search. 

Herzing doesn’t pressure his students to pursue college, and in recent years, he’s seen more become comfortable expressing a desire to enter the trades instead. The number of students taking classes at Parkway West Career & Technology Center grew from 40 to 70 in the last year, and 16% of 2023 graduates said they plan to directly enter the workforce. 

“If you’re going to go to college for a degree that’s only going to earn you $60,000, $70,000, but that’s what you’re really passionate about doing – such as social work or becoming a teacher – that’s great. But there are a lot of jobs that you can get right out of high school,” Herzing said. 

Westinghouse High School student Mahalia Cook, 17, poses for a portrait after getting off from working as a CNA at a nursing home on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023, at her home in Wilkinsburg. Cook is pursuing career and technical education while in high school. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

In the East Allegheny School District, where almost a third of families are low-income, half of graduates in the class of 2022 said they plan to attend college. That was the lowest share the district reported since the 2004-05 academic year. Emilia Mattucci Peiffer, who has counseled students there in grades 10-12 for nearly 30 years, said some of her students choose not to attend because they assume they can’t afford the cost. 

More of her students – the majority of whom would be the first in their families to attend college – have shared in recent years that they don’t want to take out loans for college. She attributes that to the prevalence of media coverage around student debt and some borrowers’ struggles to repay. She tries not to be so fatalistic. 

“I tell them, ‘Hey, it took me 10 years to pay mine back, but I did it,’” Mattucci Peiffer said. “With your education, you will have that. That’s yours to keep for the rest of your life. And it will help you to get to whatever job that you want to get to.” 

Disparities exist across some districts

Meanwhile, almost all graduates in the Mount Lebanon School District – where the median household income is $152,708 and only 4% of households are low-income – have said they plan to attend college. The percentage has hovered in the 90s since the early 2000s. High School Principal Joel Thompson said that, while families could be having more conversations about college costs now, “it hasn’t changed the ultimate goal for many, many of our families and students.”

He said he believes that many parents in the district value education and instill that view in their children, which contributes to the district’s high percentage of college-bound students. About 80% of parents in the district have a bachelor’s degree or higher. “When kids come in here, we don’t need to convince them that education matters,” Thompson said. 

Values don’t make college affordable or accessible, but Bello said that environment and parental opportunity are significant factors behind the county’s disparities in high schoolers’ post-graduation plans. 

“In wealthy communities, going to college is accepted and a normal reality,” he said. “In lower-income communities, in communities where there’s less educational attainment as the standard, then college is a reach. And a pandemic, a recession, the perception of college debt, makes it really easy to say, ‘I’m not reaching.’” 

Mandy Savitz–Romer, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has worked in school counseling, said counselors in under-resourced school districts may be stretched thin and unable to provide the same guidance around college as those in wealthier communities. Colleges and universities have historically visited wealthier districts more frequently than poorer ones, too.

And though she has seen school districts nationwide ramp up their career-oriented programming, she worries that young people pick up on society’s elevation of higher education.

“In an ideal world, we would see people questioning higher education and simultaneously getting a lot of support for career pathways and other career and trade opportunities in K-12,” Savitz-Romer said. “I’m not sure, for the lowered interest in higher education, we are simultaneously seeing that kind of investment, culturally as well as practically.”

Students pursue career and technical education

Westinghouse High School student Mahalia Cook, 17, poses for a portrait after getting off from working as a CNA at a nursing home on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023, at her home in Wilkinsburg. Cook is pursuing career and technical education while in high school. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Mahalia Cook, 17, is a senior in high school and a certified nursing assistant. While juggling her schoolwork at Westinghouse Academy 6-12, she works four days a week, for four hours a day, at a senior living facility. “It’s taught me a lot,” she said.

She’s doing this through Pittsburgh Public Schools’ career and technical education programming. The district offers 16 programs, first available in 10th grade, to prepare students “for careers in high demand fields that are crucial to our infrastructure as a society.” They can receive career certifications, earn college credit and connect with employers.

Mahalia wants to become a nurse practitioner, which would require an advanced degree. For her undergraduate studies, she’s applied to the University of Pittsburgh – her top choice – as well as Penn State, Chatham and Carlow universities. She said that, if she doesn’t receive enough financial aid, she may go to community college first. 

Dave Cook, 41, would be happy if his six children all saw college in their future, but he wants them to know that the trades are a valuable option. Vocational training was stigmatized when he was in high school – it was “for the dumb kids,” he said. He’s worked in retail since he left college, now as a store manager at an Advanced Auto Parts, and wishes he had the more consistent hours that a trade can provide. 

He thought that Mahalia’s choice to enroll in the district’s career and technical education programming was wise. Even if she doesn’t pursue college, she could use her existing certification to potentially earn around $40,000 a year

No matter what his children decide, he said: “I don’t want them to have to settle.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the demographics of the Sto-Rox School District student body.

Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at emma@publicsource.org

This story was fact-checked by Tanya Babbar.

Higher education reporter for PublicSource in partnership with Open Campus.