Traditional Student Demand

College Not Included: Mindsets of Those Who Choose a Different Path

Blog post cover image

As higher education practitioners, we often focus on the 62% of high school students who attend college right out of high school. But what about the 38% who choose not to? How many of these students will choose higher education in the future?  

The answer, according to our recently published Life After High School study: it depends on what that “higher education” is. For example, how long will it take? How strongly does it support career goals? How expensive is it?  

Providing clear answers to high school seniors could cause some of those who would otherwise opt out to reconsider an immediate college pathway. 


The future of traditional-aged, first-time undergraduate education is grim. According to forecasts from Dr. Nathan Grawe, this market is predicted to decline by 8% between now and 2035.  

We’re already seeing the evidence of this. The National Student Clearinghouse reports that while all undergraduate enrollment increased 2.1% between 2022 and 2023, freshmen enrollment declined (-3.6%). Enrollment in four-year bachelor’s programs was particularly hard hit (-6.7% for public, -4.7% for not-for-profit privates). Instead, more undergraduates are choosing shorter credentials like undergraduate certificates (+9.9%) and associate degrees (+3.6%).  

So how can four-year institutions that serve first-time undergraduates right out of high school adapt? First, they must understand the desires of high school students who don’t see a traditional college pathway.  

Eduventures conducted a study of high school seniors who expect to go directly into life without going through college. In this Life After High School Research, we used a methodology similar to the one used for our Prospective Student Mindsets™. Among those who say “no” to college, there are five distinct Mindsets that emerge: 


My job is important, but I want to travel and have a social life while prioritizing my family

These students want to work to live, not live to work. Getting a job is important, but a career less so. They want to travel, spend time with friends, and contribute financially to their families. 


I want a career and college isn’t a priority, I will continue my education in other ways

These students expect to get good jobs and develop practical career skills in the next five years.  


I want a job but will not pursue any additional education or training in the next 5 years

These students will take life as it comes in the next five years. In that time, they want to get jobs, find their purpose, and discover a professional and/or personal passion.  


College is in the cards in the next 5 years, just not right now

These students plan to attend a 4-year college or university in the next 5 years. They feel that internships and employment will help sharpen their goals.  


I am going to enlist in military service and might consider college after

These students have the clearest goals of any. Military service will open doors to their opportunities.  

Students in these Life After High School Mindsets™ place a different emphasis on key dimensions of their next five years of adult life (see Figure 1).  

Figure 1


Career First and College Later put the most emphasis on both employment and further education and training:  

  • Career First students want to get started in a career they have identified. Nearly three quarters expect their further learning to come from on-the-job training. Many (43%) say they might pursue trade or vocational schools. A quarter say they would consider a four-year college.  
  • College Later students want to develop their passions by leaping into employment. These experiences may clarify their interests in pursuing a degree. Nearly all of them (84%) expect to attend college in the future. Many expect to take advantage of free online learning (36%) and on-the-job training (35%).  

Life Balance and School’s Out students are less interested in both employment and further education.  

  • Life Balance students consider employment and family to be equally important. About half (49%) say they expect to participate in on-the-job training. About a third (34%) say they will use free online resources, and fewer than a third (29%) say they would go to a trade or vocational school.  
  • School’s Out students have thought the least about life after high school (43% say they have few plans for the future). This shows in their life interests as well as their unwillingness to participate in any further education and training. Perhaps School’s Out students just need a breather. 

Students who choose not to go to college are much more likely than those who attend college (as seen in our Admitted Student Research™) to come from lower income families (45% vs. 24%), be the first generation of their families that might go to college (49% vs. 26%), or identify as a member of a historically marginalized population (37% vs. 30%).  

Table 1 shows us how these key demographics differ among Life After High School Mindsets. 


Key Demographics and Attitudes by Life After High School Mindsets

Life Balance Career First  School’s Out  College Later  Driven to Serve 
Key Demographics 
Female  50%  37%  56%  60%  31% 
First-generation  53%  51%  54%  31%  46% 
Low-income  52%  30%  63%  43%  44% 
Underserved  44%  26%  36%  35%  38% 
Attitudes about College (percent agreement) 
Capable of academic work  48%  56%  22%  80%  63% 
Family expects college  32%  29%  23%  67%  38% 
Can afford college  21%  23%  10%  33%  24% 

Table 1.


School’s Out students are most likely to be from low-income families (63%) and to be first generation college students (54%). But they are the least likely to agree that they are capable of college academic work (22%), that their families expect them to go to college (23%), or that they could pay for college (10%).  

In comparison, Career First students are less likely to come from low-income families (30%) and almost equally likely to be first-generation (51%). They are more confident of their academic capabilities (56%) but have few family expectations to go to college (29%) or the ability to afford college (23%).  

The College Later group is the least likely to be first-generation (31%), although many are from low-income families (43%). These students have strong self-perceptions of their academic capabilities (80%) and family expectations for college (67%). Affordability is the sticking point. Few believe that they can afford college (33%). 

The Bottom Line

To survive the coming market decline, colleges and universities must pay attention to these students. To connect with them, they will need a “yes, and” response: “Yes” we understand that college might not be right for you right now; “and” we’re ready to serve your needs when you are ready for college. 

To better serve those who don’t attend college right away, colleges should consider the following: 

  • Few are likely to return for traditional college, so how can college be different? Most students who skip college don’t believe they will ever attend college. We know some will attend as non-traditional students later. But perhaps even more would consider college right away if programs fit their needs. 
  • Employer partnerships are key to getting in front of future students. Most students who skip college expect to gain further training from their employers. Inevitably, some will want to further that training with a credential.  
  • Low-cost professional programs appeal to this market. Most students want to develop their careers, yet few can afford college. Low-cost, shorter, non-degree programs can help them achieve their goals. 
  • Most of these students don’t believe they belong in college. Students in the top three Mindsets don’t believe they belong in college. Colleges must become more inclusive of first-generation college prospects and those who come from low-income families. 
  • These students will need more understanding and student support. These are B+ students who don’t think they can do the work of college. If we want them to enroll, we must be willing to build their academic skills and sense of self-efficacy. 

Like, Follow, Share.

Subscribe card logo

Never Miss Your

Wake-Up Call