In increasing numbers, young Americans bypass college to join the workforce — where a trap awaits

No matter how much industry and responsibility today's young strivers demonstrate, it may not be enough to set them on the road to success.

Increasing numbers of young Americans are bypassing college to get started in their careers. They could get caught in a trap.
Increasing numbers of young Americans are bypassing college to get started in their careers. They could get caught in a trap.

As more and more young people graduate from high schools across the nation, a growing number of them are fed up with sitting in classrooms. Rather than continue their education in college or other post-secondary schools, they are opting to go directly into the workforce.

I have been thinking about this growing trend since reading a story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about a smart and ambitious young man who opted to bypass not only college, but his own high school graduation, in order to accept a job washing cars in suburban Atlanta. As Journal-Constitution reporter Arlinda Smith Broady related, Jackson Sentell knew early on that school wasn’t his jam and working for a living suited his life’s ambitions. So he dropped out of high school to accept a car washing job, while finishing high school by taking online classes. The story said he was so driven to succeed that he “completed his senior year in one semester — with all As.”

Sentell told Broady that he knew what he was doing. “I didn’t want to spend time in a classroom when I didn’t feel I was learning anything that would help with my future,” he said, adding that his family supported his decision.

What’s more, Sentell’s story ended on a positive note, serving as a potentially optimistic fable for other bright, young go-getters to emulate. Indeed, the entire point of the article was to note that last month Sentell, at age 18, was named manager of the Autobell in Lawrenceville, Georgia, making him the youngest manager in the 80-store company.


A good, human-interest story, right? Well, not so fast. Sentell’s story brought to my mind an existential occupational question: How far can  anyone advance into the future’s unpredictable job market, if they’re starting out today with limited education in a low-skill, entry-level job? 

Sentell certainly sounds like a young man on the move, one who is well ahead of the work-world curve among his erstwhile high school classmates. But, he’s only 18 and fast approaching a career ceiling at the car wash. After all, he’s working for a fourth-generation, family-owned business with not a lot of positions in the company’s upper echelons for him to aspire to, let alone attain.

Sentell may have won a sprint, relative to his peers, in terms of salary and benefits. But he’s just begun the real rat race; the marathon of work is a long, winding and obstacle-filled course that looms ominously ahead of him.

Beyond this specific story, however, I harbor a fear that far too many young people who are foregoing college or work-force training beyond high school, may soon find themselves at a disadvantage in the competition for 21st century jobs and careers. Indeed, my concerns are buttressed by two overlapping trends that combine to punish high school students who don’t want — or can’t afford — to attend college.

The first trend is that colleges and universities are pricing themselves out of the reach of the vast majority of American students, at a time when demographers observe a downward trend in the numbers of students available to attend college.


Calling it “a crisis that few outside high education even know exists,” a recent study published by The Hechinger Report, which tracks trends in higher education, noted “a dip in the birth rate means there are fewer 18-to-24-year olds leaving high schools, especially in the Midwest and Northeast. This has coincided with an even more precipitous decline in the number for students older than 24, who experts say have been drawn back into the workforce as the economy improves, dragging down enrollment at community colleges and private, for-profit universities that provide mid-career education.”

While the majority of young people graduating from the nation’s high schools are still going to college, they are doing so in declining numbers. In fact, the number of students on college and university campuses has declined for six straight years, including a 1.3 percent decrease reported in the spring of 2018 relative to the previous spring, according to figures collected by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. 

In real numbers, that means just over 18 million students were enrolled in colleges and universities across the nation in the fall semester of 2017. That’s about 2.4 million fewer than were were in the fall of 2011 — the most recent high-water mark, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. “That’s unprecedented in the history of as long as data has been kept on higher education,” Kevin Crockett, senior executive at the enrollment-management consulting firm Ruffalo Noel Levitz, told The Hechinger Report.

The second and more threatening trend is that high school graduates are entering workplaces without the requisite skills and abilities to meet increasingly technical and knowledge-based job demands.

A recent Gallup Poll of 1,506 adults nationwide found that only 5 percent of the respondents think high school graduates are “very prepared” to enter the workforce. As Brandon Busteed, the executive director for Education and Workforce Development at Gallup, wrote in a blog coinciding with the survey’s release, the public holds a “rather dreary picture of the performance of our educational system.”

Simply stated, employers aren’t finding qualified workers in an evolving workforce as readily as they should. Our nation continues to view education as a pipeline for potential workers, much as it did a century and half ago. The idea then was that students would learn the basic skills that would be useful in an agricultural- or industrial-based economy, which in turn would allow them to successfully hold farm or blue-collar jobs for a lifetime.


Of course, those days are long gone. As Anthony P. Carnevale at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce projects, “The United States will fall short by 5 million workers with postsecondary education — at the current production rate — by 2020.”

In a C-SPAN interview last year, Carnevale noted how young people in many European countries leave high school with job training in a wide array of career paths. He said such job-intensive high school curriculums contribute to a “youth unemployment rate is one-fifth of [the U.S.] youth unemployment rate.”

But this achievement requires hefty public investments in the lives of young Europeans. For the most part, Americans have been unwilling to emulate this model. “The trouble is it costs a lot of money and an apprenticeship can cost the employer from $60,000 to $250,000,” Carnevale said.

But the failure to make these investments has led to a reality that’s even more costly. According to the most recent figures produced by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), more education is far better than less:

  • Recent high school graduates not enrolled in college in the fall of 2017 were more likely to be working or looking for work (67.4 percent), than were college students (39.8 percent).
  • The unemployment rate for recent high school graduates not enrolled in college was 16.8 percent, higher than the rate of 10.2 percent for recent graduates enrolled in college.
  • Between October 2016 and October 2017, 530,000 young people dropped out of high school.
  • Among 16-to-24-year-olds, 41.8 percent of recent high school dropouts were working or looking for work, lower than the labor force participation rate of 67.4 percent for recent high school graduates not enrolled in college.

All this adds up to an extremely convincing argument for staying in high school as well as obtaining additional training and education after graduation, wherever possible. Apprenticeships and employee training programs hold potential, but a greater willingness to think past immediate returns on short-term dollars spent is necessary in order to truly help young workers lead a prosperous life.

I don’t want to cruelly cast shade upon Sentell’s decision. After all, he’s doing well. For now.

But I do worry that his example isn’t one that can — or should — be widely replicated among the legions of young people trying to find their way in an uncertain future. While it may be true that college life isn’t for every one, many of those entering the job market are making a quixotic short-term decision that may prove to have unimagined long-term consequences.