Launching a Career, Without College

Undergraduate enrollment has fallen 8% since 2019, the largest slide on record. Are we at a tipping point when it comes to skipping college and going directly into the workforce?

Instead of a gap year, maybe they should call it a gap career. 

Based on the latest data, the trend of people choosing to skip college to go directly into the workforce—a movement that began during the pandemic—may be reaching a tipping point. Undergraduate enrollment nationwide fell 8% between 2019 and 2022, the largest slide on record, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Just 62% of high school seniors nationwide go directly to college now, down from 66% in 2019, with the figures even lower for Asian, Black, Hispanic, and other underrepresented groups. 

In the past, high-school seniors who opted out of college tended to get tenuous, low-paying jobs. But Ben Frost, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Products business, says that these graduates are now landing well-paying roles that can lead to stable, long-term careers. “Because of the labor shortage, there is a strong pull from employers looking to hire straight from high school,” he says. “The idea is to build degree-level skills and experience via apprenticeships and other training programs.”

At the same time, Frost says, the “push” away from college that began during the pandemic hasn’t abated. He says remote learning left students disillusioned about the college experience and “wondering what they were paying for.” Given the salary and tuition growth caused by inflation, the workforce looks a lot more attractive than college to many young people, says Tracy Bosch, a Korn Ferry senior client partner. 

Experts say the shifting dynamics create unique hiring and retention challenges for companies. These extend far beyond rewriting job descriptions and changing recruiting technology. Increasingly, there is a focus on skills instead of education. Jacob Zabkowicz, Korn Ferry's vice president and general manager for recruitment process outsourcing, says hiring managers are already seeing instances of “certificate-stuffing," in which candidates pad their resumes with industry credentials and certificates they didn’t earn or training they breezed through without actually learning the material. Think of it as the skills-based equivalent of the “C’s get degrees” approach many students take towards college. Hiring managers, says Zabkowicz, are going to have to be trained on how to properly evaluate “the alphabet soup of credentials.” 

Similarly, Zabkowicz says, leaders will also have to rethink career pathways for young workers who forgo college. For instance, the more companies depend on artificial intelligence to automate routine tasks and in-the-trenches work, he says, the more managers and leaders will have to “develop and coach” young workers for professional-level jobs. That doesn’t just apply to hard skills, but also to teaching the culture of the company and the soft skills needed to advance. 

There are organizations like the nonprofit Opportunity@Work that aim to expand access to professional careers for people without college degrees. Many companies also already partner with colleges and universities on skills-based curriculums meant to train students for high-demand, hard-to-fill technical or specialty roles. Bosch expects to see a tighter intertwining of business and higher education to provide pathways to professional-level jobs. 

Today, COVID restrictions have been lifted and the college experience is normal again—meaning that when it comes to getting a four-year degree, the recent data could just be a case of “not now” rather than “never.” But, says Frost, “if people do start falling into careers that are going well for them, there is no guarantee they will pick up college later on.”


Learn more about Korn Ferry’s Workforce Transformation capabilities.