In the wake of the pandemic and economic uncertainty, Gen Z is questioning whether college is worth it.
Chelsea Jia Feng/Insider
It took just one semester for Rushil Srivastava to realize that college was not what he had hoped. “As a kid, you always imagine college will be a life-changing experience, and that your freshman year is where you’ll get a chance to discover yourself,” he said. Instead, he was forced to take classes online in the wake of COVID and faced a campus social scene that remained fractured. The computer-science major wound up dropping out of UC Berkeley in fall 2021, only a few months after he had enrolled.
Soon after Srivastava decided to launch a startup designed to help job seekers find work. Today, as most of his peers are starting their senior year of college, he’s got more than $1 million in venture-capital funding. “Most of my friends are just now finally getting adjusted, some better than others,” the now 20-year-old said. “The world is rapidly evolving — and so is the college experience.”
Srivastava is one of a soaring number of Gen Zers who has decided to skip college altogether. Four million fewer teenagers enrolled at a college in 2022 than in 2012. For many, the price tag has simply grown too exorbitant to justify the cost. From 2010 to 2022, college tuition rose an average of 12% a year, while overall inflation only increased an average of 2.6% each year. Today it costs at least $104,108 on average to attend four years of public university — and $223,360 for a private university.
At the same time, the salaries students can expect to earn after graduation haven’t kept up with the cost of college. A 2019 report from the Pew Research Center found that earnings for young college-educated workers had remained mostly flat over the past 50 years. Four years after graduating, according to recent data from the Higher Education Authority, a third of students earn less than $40,000 — lower than the average salary of $44,356 that workers with only a high-school diploma earn. Factor in the average student debt of $33,500 that college graduates owe after they leave school, and many graduates will spend years catching up with their degree-less counterparts. This student-debt-driven financial hole is leaving more young graduates with a lower net worth than previous generations.
The focus now, especially in the midst of so much uncertainty in the economy, is on using college to prepare for a single, overriding goal: getting a good job.
The widening gap between the value and the cost of college has started to shift Gen Z’s attitude toward higher education. A 2022 survey by Morning Consult found that 41% of Gen Zers said they “tend to trust US colleges and universities,” the lowest percentage of any generation. It’s a significant shift from when millennials were in their shoes a decade ago: A 2014 Pew Research survey found that 63% of millennials valued a college education or planned to get one. And of those who graduated, 41% of that cohort considered their schooling “very useful” in readying them to enter the workforce — that’s compared to 45% of Gen Xers and 47% of boomers who felt the same.
As a result, Gen Zers who do decide to attend college enter with a whole new set of priorities. They’re not as interested in the typical “college experience” — whiling away four years rooming with friends and drinking at frat parties. College today is simply too expensive for fun and games. And many students are no longer drawn by the traditional mission of a liberal-arts education: to foster critical thinking and informed discourse. The focus now, especially in the midst of so much uncertainty in the economy, is on using college to prepare for a single, overriding goal: getting a good job.
When Nora Taets enrolled at Iowa State University two years ago, she started off with a major in entrepreneurship and a minor in psychology because it sounded like a “fun idea.” But when she learned that her major could make her less attractive to future employers — because they might think she’d “go to their company and take all of their ideas” — she shifted to marketing. “By switching, this will be a way better way to lead to jobs in the future,” she said.
The single-minded focus on jobs is transforming what colleges actually teach. Degrees that lead to better-paying careers — computer science, engineering, business, and health science — are soaring in popularity. At UC Berkeley, computer science is now the most popular major — up from seventh place in 2014. In response to demand, the university recently unveiled its first new college in more than half a century: the College of Computing, Data Science, and Society. Data science, a degree established only five years ago, is now the third-most-popular degree the university offers.
“Students are increasingly drawn to subjects like artificial intelligence, data science, business analytics, and social media,” James Connor, the dean of the School of Business and Information Technology at San Francisco Bay University, said. “This surge reflects their understanding of these subjects’ importance for career competitiveness and longevity.”
The pandemic forced students to think broadly about their lives and careers.
Students are also devoting their free time to maximizing their career prospects. They take workshops to better understand the current economic situation; they enroll in additional courses online to complete their degrees faster; and they constantly compare notes on the job market. “One may still play a game of Ping-Pong in the open room,” Connor said, “but the discussions of those watching on the sidelines are very different.” Instead of talking about “local leisure activities around San Francisco and Silicon Valley,” as they did four years ago, he said, they’re now more likely to discuss whether they made a mistake in choosing computer science given the rise in tech layoffs or whether they should get an MBA to avoid the job market until fears of a recession have passed.
“These questions would have been atypical before COVID, but now they are the norm,” Connor said. “The pandemic forced students to think broadly about their lives and careers — and in a long-term way.”
But as majors in computer science and engineering have soared, those in the humanities have plummeted. Last year, only 7% of Harvard freshmen planned to major in the humanities — down from 20% a decade earlier and almost 30% in the 1970s. In February, Marymount University voted to drop nine liberal-arts majors, including English, history, and philosophy.
Richard Saller, a classics professor at Stanford University, has watched with concern as the value of the humanities in the broader culture has been “diluted.” While he’s “not inclined to make a dire prediction,” he has noticed that such subjects are increasingly being studied only by those who can afford the prospect of a lower-paying career. “Though it pains me to say this, it is true that study of literature and other forms of the humanities has been something that has been more popular among students who don’t have an immediate need to generate an income after graduation,” Saller said.
Those who were in the middle of college when COVID hit bore the brunt of the changes to higher education. Meghan Reinhold, now 25, recalled “crying myself to sleep” when she was sent home from campus in March 2020. What “first seemed exciting, like when you miss school for a snow day,” turned into years at home, technological issues that disrupted her ability to access and hand in assignments on time, and a deeply secluded existence.
“I became more and more disconnected from anyone at school, including my professors,” recalled Reinhold, who majored in psychology. “I was just staring into a screen, and it didn’t feel like I was in college anymore.” She suffered from “overwhelming anxiety and frequent panic attacks,” became addicted to nicotine, and barely ate, she said. And since graduating, she has struggled to find a job.
“I already feel so burned out from just trying to finish college,” she said, “and I haven’t even started my life yet.”
But while online classes initially destroyed the college experience for many students, some are now opting for remote learning over campus life as a way to save money. Prior to COVID, around a third of university teaching took place online, either via prerecorded lectures, video tutorials, or digitized reading material. Now, some schools have switched to online only, while others are capitalizing on the current trend by launching business programs that are entirely virtual. In 2011, 300,000 students were enrolled in massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which offer a wide range of courses for free. By 2021, the number had soared to 220 million. Students still want a college degree. They just want to get it faster — and cheaper.
For some young students, though, college hasn’t changed much. María Gorgojo, 19, described her first year in biomedical engineering as “a very positive and enlightening experience” — one that has made her confident in her choices. Regardless of majors, she said, college life remains unchanged from her father’s generation: “You study, you sometimes loathe your professors, or even question why you started this degree, you meet new people and you realize they are all equally as lost,” she said. “The essence of the university experience remains intact.”
But other members of Gen Z are taking a hard look at the “essence” of college. Srivastava, the Berkeley dropout, thinks that the prospect of reinventing what higher education looks like appeals to Gen Z, a group “known for challenging the status quo,” he said. Their changing views “will fuel the drive for innovative, value-driven alternatives to college.” Those alternatives take many forms. Schools like Miami University of Ohio and Arizona State now allow honors students to piece together majors of their own design, for instance, while some skilled-trade programs have experienced a 40% spike in enrollment since the pandemic.
While Srivastava may have missed out on the tug-of-war with professors and campus life, he doesn’t regret his decision to be a student of the world. “The experience and knowledge I have accumulated is invaluable and not taught in any classrooms or lecture hall,” he said. “Every day is a new exciting challenge, and I am learning more about myself on a daily basis.”
Charlotte Lytton is a journalist based in London.