The College Question

Every May, tens of thousands of college graduates will walk across the stage to receive a diploma; at the same time, high school students complete their last full month of school before summer. May is an important month on the academic calendar. Both high school and college students are making long-term financial decisions that can affect their future for decades to come. While many young people choose to enroll in a four-year degree program following high school, others decide to delay their degree or pursue trade school. Each path has its own financial pros and cons.

College After High School

Though university enrollment has skyrocketed over the past century, the percentage of high school graduates who attend college the next fall has recently plateaued. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, two-thirds of 2018 high school graduates were enrolled in colleges or universities in the fall, an enrollment rate that has remained flat over the past decade (Camera). College is a significant financial investment, and with rising tuition costs and student loans, the return on investment may not match up. Adults with a bachelor’s degree earn 57% more money on average than those with only a high school diploma, but if the cost of college exceeds the increase in earnings, a college education may not be worth it for some (Farrington).

Trade School

Most new, well-paying jobs do require some kind of postsecondary education, but that isn’t limited to a four-year degree. Technical certificates, trade schools, and two-year degrees can often lead to jobs that pay higher than those that require a bachelor’s degree (Garmon-Brown). These certifications and two-year degrees also avoid the financial burden of student loans. Thus, middle-skill jobs, or jobs that require more education than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree, are becoming more prevalent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 37% of all new jobs created between 2013-2017 were middle-skill jobs. Due to the high return on investment of middle-skill careers, more and more high school graduates are taking this alternative, financially beneficial career path.

Returning to College

On the other hand, some people plan to attend a four-year college or university but are delayed due to financial problems, family responsibilities, or unforeseen circumstances. Nowadays, college students aren’t only starry-eyed 18-year-olds. According to research from RTI International, 74% of today’s college students are nontraditional, meaning they fall into at least one of seven categories: they’re financially independent from their parents, they have a child or dependent, they’re a single caregiver, they lack a traditional high school diploma, they delayed postsecondary enrollment, they’re attending school part-time, or they’re employed full-time (Nadworny and Depenbrock). Unsurprisingly, around 25% of college students fall into more than one of these categories. Though adults may be wary of returning to school for fear of standing out, delaying a degree is becoming increasingly common.

The majority of high school students decide to attend college the following fall. However, postponing college or pursuing a technical vocation are equally valid choices. The choice of whether or not to pursue secondary education is a personal one, and it shouldn’t be based solely on societal expectations. Perhaps soon the notion of a traditional college student will cease to exist as more and more people choose the path that best aligns with their individual needs.


  • Camera, Lauren. “College Enrollment Stays Flat, Continuing a Decade-Long Trend.” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, 25 Apr. 2019,
  • Garmon-Brown, Ophelia. Opportunity Task Force Report. Leading on Opportunity, 2017, Opportunity Task Force Report,
  • Nadworny, Elissa, and Julie Depenbrock. “Today’s College Students Aren’t Who You Think They Are.” NPR, NPR, 4 Sept. 2018,