Graduation season is fast approaching, and high school seniors all over the country are making plans for what they will do after crossing the stage and picking up that piece of paper. To give us a sense of what those plans might be, we can look to the choices made by last year’s graduates. On April 16, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released data on where last year’s high school graduates ended up.
In 2014, out of 2.9 million new high school graduates, 2.0 million were enrolled in college in the fall. At 68.4 percent, that’s slightly higher than 2013, when the rate was 65.9 percent. The college enrollment rate for young women (72.7 percent) was substantially higher than the college enrollment rate for young men (64.0 percent), which has generally been the case over the last two decades. The uptick in enrollment rates for both women and men in 2014 reverses what was beginning to look like a downward trend since 2010, but it’s important to note this is a data series with a small sample size and so it can be volatile year to year.
Over a third – 706,000 – of those 2 million new college students were enrolled in 2-year colleges. As President Obama noted, “In the coming years, jobs requiring at least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs requiring no college experience. We will not fill those jobs – or keep those jobs on our shores – without the training offered by community colleges.”
The Department of Labor is committed to making sure college is an affordable option for everybody. Indeed, over the last 4 years, we’ve awarded nearly $2 billion to community colleges around the country to expand their capacity to offer training in the fastest growing occupations. By building partnerships between community colleges and businesses, these grants help ensure that students who graduate from community colleges are immediately able to join the workforce when they graduate.
However, as Secretary Perez has said, college is just one path to the middle class. For many high school graduates, college isn’t the only option, and there were over 900,000 new high school graduates last year who didn’t immediately go on to college. Many employers need workers with practical skills that are learned on the job, and apprenticeships are a crucial pathway to well-paying jobs without the burden of college debt. With the average salary of an apprenticeship graduate at over $50,000, apprenticeships are a great way to “punch your ticket to the middle class.” Given the substantial return on training investment in apprenticeships, the Department of Labor is awarding $100 million − the largest ever federal investment in apprenticeships − to expand them in new fields and for more Americans.
Dr. Heidi Shierholz is the Labor Department’s chief economist.