The share of recent high-school graduates who enrolled in college in 2016 catapulted to nearly reach 2009’s record high, even though an improving job market has made work an appealing alternative for some young adults to the classroom.
About 69.7% of the 3.1 million high-school graduates between the ages of 16 and 24 headed to colleges or universities, the Labor Department said, based on data from January through October 2016. That percentage trailed the historical high for the numbers tracing back to 1959.
The labor market has been gradually improving since the recession, with unemployment dropping from 10% in 2010 to less than 5% last year. Still, students are opting to attend post-secondary schools in droves, and economists, including Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen, have recently defended the value of higher education as a protection against globalization and technological change.
“The economy is shifting toward more occupations that require more education,” said Jed Kolko, chief economist at job site Indeed. He noted one caveat: Many jobs that don’t require formal education credentials — like restaurant cooks — are expected to become higher in demand over the years.
In 2009, the college enrollment rate among high-school graduates rose to a record high of 70.1%, as the recession convinced many young Americans to pursue higher education in lieu of confronting a dire job market. While 2013 enrollment, which dropped to the lowest level since 2006, seemed to indicate the trend may have been unwinding, enrollment has been on the rise ever since.
Students are recognizing the high returns of college education and responding to changes in the labor market, such as the proliferation of less well-paying service jobs, said Brian Jacob, a professor of education and economics at the University of Michigan.
After years of steady enrollment growth in two-year schools, most in this cohort of high-school graduates are choosing to attend four-year colleges. These universities can thank the increased popularity of online courses and higher return on investment relative to two-year schools, Mr. Jacob said.
Those with college degrees boast a significantly lower unemployment rate than those without. The unemployment rate for college graduates declined in April 2016 to 2.4%, the lowest since early 2008. Meanwhile, unemployment climbed for workers without a high-school diploma.