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With tuition up and enrollment down, many are asking, 'Is college worth it?'

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High schoolers across the state are gearing up for the ceremonial walk across the stage — the hand shake, the diploma, throwing their mortarboard into the air.

And these new grads are prepping for the numerous times they’ll be asked, “So, what are you going to do next?”

Last week, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released enrollment figures for undergraduate students in spring 2022.

Compared to 2021, 662,000 fewer students enrolled. Overall, undergraduate enrollment has dropped by nearly 1.4 million students during the pandemic.

We know some reasons why people might not be choosing college: It’s expensive. It’s time consuming. And, as Marina Parr puts it, there are other options.

"We have 34 community and technical colleges in Washington," Parr explained. "They have a wide array of programs. We also have over 300 private career schools that are offering short-term, career-focused training, and we also have registered apprenticeships with the trades."

Parr is the communications director for Washington’s Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board.

She said education for education's sake is nice, but education is also about the career opportunities they can bring.

"I think our economy is a place that can be a difficult place for a lot of folks, because they're not exactly sure where to go," Parr said. "They're not exactly sure what's going to pay off for them, not just in terms of career, but even just personally."

Parr suggests that in order to make the most of educational opportunities, people should start thinking about potential career paths earlier than we typically do, much earlier.

"If the person is making a decision at age 18, it's way too late," Parr said. "You should be thinking about this back in middle school and really hopefully being exposed to career exploration in elementary school."

Not everyone agrees.

"My answer is absolutely no, we should not be," said Sarah Stroup, a professor of ancient Greek and Roman studies in the classics department at the University of Washington. "Kids are under such intense emotional and psychological stress. When they come to the University of Washington they are really psychologically damaged with the stresses of having to know exactly what they want to do."

Stroup directs a UW program called Humanities First that helps students understand the potential career paths that can come with a humanities degree.

Because it can be hard to figure out alone.

"They tend to think that there are no options, when in fact, it's really interesting because there are far more options," Stroup said. "Because there's not one job for a historian. But there are lots of jobs for people who can research well, and communicate well, and make connections across time and space and language."

Stroup said those jobs include being a journalist, working in television, owning a bar, and so on. Having a classics, English or history degree might not offer a direct career path, but that's kind of the point. It gives you options.

She also acknowledges that going to a four-year institution isn't for everyone.

So, how do you decide? For students going into their junior year, or parents trying to help guide their kids — how do you do a cost/benefit analysis of the college experience?

According to Michael Horn, co-host of the podcasts "Future U" and "Class Disrupted," if you graduate, the college experience is still typically worth it.

"On average, you are likely to get a better job, have better lifetime earnings, have a lot of success, and friends, and health and so forth," Horn said. "But if you don't graduate, and 45% of students roughly who go do not graduate from a four-year college within six years, then it's a very different story."

Horn, the author of several books on education, including "Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life," said that, because of the rising cost of tuition, parents have changed how they think about going to school.

"In many cases families, certainly parents, are saying, 'Maybe it's not the benefit that I thought it was. I actually have to think about this as an investment. And what's my return on that investment?'" he said.

Students, Horn said, aren't quite there yet.

But Horn emphasizes that, for students who do complete their degrees, it's a good investment. But for students who don't end up graduating, even a small amount of school debt can have a lasting impact on their lives.

"It's much more punishing when you're that student who has some debt, but no degree," Horn explained. "That's when you don't have that ticket to that job that's going to help you pay that off."

Ultimately, Horn said, deciding whether college is worth it is up to the individual. And the best way to make it is to, "Know thy self." Horn suggests potential students think of what gives them energy — what strengths they have, and what could fit with those strengths.

A new student doesn't need to have their whole career figured out.

"Get a deeper sense of your why," Horn said. "And it should be individual to you. It doesn't need to fit into anyone else's why."

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