Podcast: Is going to college still the smarter option?

By Anna Zim­mer­mann | UConn Jour­nal­ism
Decem­ber 12, 2023

In today’s first episode of “Small Sto­ries, Big Pic­ture,” we are delv­ing into the evolv­ing land­scape of high­er edu­ca­tion, and more specif­i­cal­ly, why col­lege enroll­ment has been mak­ing a steady decline. 

I spoke with for­mer Uni­ver­si­ty of Con­necti­cut stu­dent, Lily Loewenguth, and Car­ly Zin­gus, a cur­rent junior at UConn, about their expe­ri­ences and how they fit into the larg­er nar­ra­tive of decreas­ing enrollment. 

Join me as we explore why mil­lions of young Amer­i­cans are ques­tion­ing the worth of a col­lege degree and take a clos­er look at how this is effect­ing real every­day people.


Lily Loewenguth: I live on my own now, and I live in an apart­ment with my sis­ter, and I pret­ty much ful­ly sup­port myself. I pay my own rent. I have a full time job that I work right now. And, like, I ful­ly take care of myself. I don’t rely on any­one or my par­ents, at all for any type of finan­cial help or any­thing like that. So I feel like that was prob­a­bly the biggest change in my life.

Anna Zim­mer­mann: Wel­come to the first episode of small sto­ries. Big pic­ture. I’m Anna Zim­mer­man, and today we’re ask­ing why so many young adults have decid­ed that a col­lege degree isn’t worth it any­more. Lily Lohen­goth, a for­mer stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Con­necti­cut, shares her sto­ry about her col­lege expe­ri­ence, why she dropped out, and how it could pos­si­bly con­nect to the greater sto­ry of why col­lege enroll­ment rates have been mak­ing a steady decline.

Speak­er A: it report­ed more than 1 mil­lion few­er under­grad­u­ate stu­dents in 2022 com­pared to 2019.
Speak­er C: That’s a 7.6% decrease on enroll­ment. Rates sug­gest that enroll­ment is down. This is the 6th year that enroll­ment.
Speak­er A: Like 56% of Amer­i­cans, don’t believe a col­lege degree is worth the price.

Anna: Lily is not the only one who has had to come to terms with this strug­gle. Accord­ing to the Nation­al cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion­al Sta­tis­tics, enroll­ment in degree grant­i­ng edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tion dropped 15% from 2010 to 2021.

Lily: I real­ly enjoyed my col­lege expe­ri­ence. I was play­ing lacrosse, so that was a big com­mit­ment dur­ing col­lege. But I feel like it def­i­nite­ly helped me get through a lot of the things that most col­lege stu­dents won’t have that type of, atmos­phere to con­nect with. And I feel like that was real­ly good for me. It was def­i­nite­ly chal­leng­ing, but I enjoyed it.

Anna: So what made you decide to go to col­lege in the first place?

Lily: Obvi­ous­ly, there’s the fact that every­body goes to col­lege once they’re out of high school kind of stig­ma, and I def­i­nite­ly had that ingrained in me. See­ing all of my friends and every­body around me going to col­lege, that def­i­nite­ly pushed me to go into that direc­tion as well. And I feel like I had my doubts before actu­al­ly going to col­lege of like, is this the right deci­sion? Am I going to regret this? Am I not ready to go to school? But ulti­mate­ly, I did decide to go because I had my lacrosse schol­ar­ship, and I had this
great oppor­tu­ni­ty ahead of me, and Yukon was a great school and a great pro­gram. So over­all, I felt like it was the best choice for me at the time. I think my par­ents think that they also pushed me to go as well, because, again, it was a great oppor­tu­ni­ty for me to expand on my knowl­edge and meet new peo­ple, get new expe­ri­ences. So I feel like that was ulti­mate­ly the rea­son­ing behind me going. I feel like most of my time at school, I had a lot of men­tal health strug­gles. And even before I went to school, I had a lot of
men­tal health strug­gles, too. and all of the school­work on top of being an ath­lete def­i­nite­ly did­n’t always ben­e­fit me in that aspect. And I was­n’t pay­ing atten­tion or help­ing myself in any way to kind of bet­ter my men­tal health because I am so busy. I was so busy with school and trav­el­ing and prac­tices and all of that, com­bined just was very over­whelm­ing. And I put a lot of impor­tant things like my men­tal health to the side.

But yeah, I feel like that was def­i­nite­ly a strug­gle for me. Just over­all, my men­tal health def­i­nite­ly took a toll on every­thing. School­work and in lacrosse, I don’t think I per­formed my best over­all in every aspect. Because of that, I think the men­tal health ser­vices could have been bet­ter, too. Going into all of my appoint­ments, I did­n’t feel like I was being kind of heard or lis­tened to or giv­en any type of advice.

Anna: Lily is not the only one chal­lenged with the effects of men­tal health. In fact, men­tal health, espe­cial­ly among women, has been a grow­ing fac­tor in the decline of enroll­ment. Stephanie Markin from CBS News shines light on the issue dur­ing a seg­ment this past year. When dis­cussing how col­lege enroll­ment num­bers are con­tin­u­ing to drop.

Stephanie Markin: And when we ask a series of rea­sons for which they don’t con­sid­er enroll­ment or that they’re strug­gling to remain enrolled, we find men­tal health and well being is a sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge. Stu­dents are fac­ing stu­dents of all types, but women are even more like­ly to report that stress and men­tal health con­cerns and well being in gen­er­al is real­ly keep­ing them from being able to stay enrolled. So as we think about enroll­ment rates, we have to con­sid­er both attract­ing new learn­ers, but also main­tain­ing the learn­ers who have already opt­ed in and spent rather sig­nif­i­cant­ly in order to enroll in the first place.

Anna: Lily ulti­mate­ly dropped out of UConn at the end of her fresh­man year. She’s now liv­ing in Court­land, New York and work­ing as a wait­ress to save up for her future. Is it sur­pris­ing to you at all that pub­lic opin­ion on col­lege, as well as col­lege enroll­ment as a whole has declined?

Lily: No, I don’t think that’s sur­pris­ing at all. I feel like that has become more and more of the norm as time has pro­gressed, and I think a lot of peo­ple have come to real­ize that you can be super suc­cess­ful and you don’t have to have a degree if you are in school. Kind of deters you from doing things like trav­el or just doing your own. I don’t know. Trav­el is a big thing that I think of. That, is pret­ty hard to do when you are in school. And I think that in itself is a big learn­ing expe­ri­ence or just like tak­ing a year, to focus on your­self and bet­ter your­self, which is some­thing I think I wish I did do, lead­ing up to school. but yeah, I don’t think it’s sur­pris­ing at all that col­lege enroll­ment, or just any­thing like that, has declined, espe­cial­ly with how expen­sive it gets too. Every­thing just con­tin­ues to go up, and at the end of the day, with a col­lege degree, you could poten­tial­ly come out with an amaz­ing job that you can eas­i­ly pay off your debts with, or you can come out with a job that is very low pay­ing. For exam­ple, if you go to school to
be a teacher, you can have a lot of these stu­dent debts, but on aver­age, the teacher salary is very low. So it’s years and years and years that you have to pay off your debt. But if you don’t go to school, you don’t have all these col­lege debts, and you can have an amaz­ing job, or you just con­tin­ue to grow your own wealth and what­ev­er it may be.

Anna: This is a point that many Amer­i­cans, includ­ing Lily, are wor­ried about. While recent enroll­ment has been decreas­ing, num­bers from the edu­ca­tion data ini­tia­tive show that indi­vid­ual stu­dent debt has been increas­ing by a stag­ger­ing 48% since 2017, with the aver­age fed­er­al debt per stu­dent bor­row­er being $37,650. Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sor Melis­sa Kearny says this when dis­cussing the cost ben­e­fits of a col­lege degree on Bloomberg tele­vi­sion’s Wall Street week segment.

Melis­sa Kearny: In gen­er­al, even though I’m real­ly empha­siz­ing that a col­lege degree is a good invest­ment in one’s future, the fact of the mat­ter is not all insti­tu­tions and not all majors deliv­er large earn­ings pre­mi­ums. And that, again, is some­thing that stu­dents have to take into account and have to make good deci­sions about where they’re study­ing and what they’re studying.

Anna: Paul Tuff from the New York Times the Dai­ly notes these increas­ing risks asso­ci­at­ed with going to col­lege by com­par­ing the invest­ment to a sim­ple bet, say­ing, it real­ly does depend on who you are and what you major in on where you go. If you’re study­ing arts, human­i­ties, or social sci­ences, your chances of com­ing out ahead, if you’re spend­ing even $25,000 a year on col­lege, is no bet­ter than a coin flip.

Lily: Nobody knows what they want to do fresh­man, sopho­more, junior year. It takes time for you to kind of fig­ure your­self out and fig­ure out what you enjoy. But I feel like I did­n’t real­ly have any idea, and I was study­ing envi­ron­men­tal sci­ence when I was at col­lege and I real­ly enjoyed that, but I also did­n’t think it was all that real­is­tic based on where I was liv­ing. And, once I did get the job, if I did get the job that I was look­ing to get into, again, very low pay­ing, hard to pay off my debts, even though I had
schol­ar­ship, I was still going to have a lot of debt. so I def­i­nite­ly think it did fac­tor into it.

Again, I did­n’t exact­ly know what I want­ed, and I felt like it’s kind of a waste of time for me to spend all of this mon­ey and all of this time to not know. And also the fact of my men­tal health, that’s men­tal­ly drain­ing as well. And that’s a lot of time that I’m putting towards school where I have no idea what I want to do, where I could be putting that time towards help­ing myself and bet­ter­ing myself and prepar­ing myself for poten­tial­ly going back to school or going some­where else where I can learn new experiences.

Anna: How has your life been dif­fer­ent since leav­ing school?

Lily: I think it’s been very dif­fer­ent. And for the bet­ter, I would say over­all, I don’t regret any of my deci­sions that I made. Col­lege, you still get a lit­tle bit of help from your par­ents because obvi­ous­ly you can’t have a job there, and if they can sup­port you in that way and you still have peo­ple sur­round­ing you that are help­ing you. And me being on a team, I had my coach­es, I had my ath­let­ic train­ers, I had my team­mates all sup­port­ing and help­ing me. But now I feel like I’m real­ly on my own. I’m not in my
home­town now, so it took a lit­tle adjust­ing. Like, I have peo­ple here that I know, but I don’t see them very often. So I real­ly am ful­ly on my own, besides being with my sister.

And I think that’s, the biggest change in my life that has been real­ly good for me. Like, being 20 years old and pret­ty much being com­plete­ly finan­cial­ly sta­ble for what I need right now is not some­thing a lot of peo­ple could say. and same thing. Last year, 19–20 years old, I’ve been doing this, which is pret­ty, I would say I’m pret­ty proud of. And I think that’s pret­ty impres­sive com­ing from some­one at this age.

Anna: Although it’s becom­ing more social­ly accept­able to ques­tion the worth of a col­lege degree, there are, of course, those who con­tin­ue to stick it out.

Car­ly Zin­gus: So far, my col­lege expe­ri­ence has been noth­ing I would have imag­ined. I’ve actu­al­ly been to two dif­fer­ent col­leges that are com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent. I’ve, been to a small lib­er­al arts col­lege for my first two years of col­lege, and it actu­al­ly was just three semes­ters of col­lege. And then I went to a com­mu­ni­ty col­lege for one semes­ter, and now I am at UConn. So it’s kind of been a lit­tle bit of a roller coaster.

Anna: Car­ly Zin­gus, a cur­rent junior at UConn, has strug­gled with sim­i­lar feel­ings towards col­lege, just as lily and mil­lions of oth­ers have. But the out­come for Car­ly was dif­fer­ent. She decid­ed to stay despite of those struggles.

Car­ly: Emmanuel was com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent because the class sizes, the edu­ca­tion, the loca­tion. Emanuel Col­lege, again, is a small lib­er­al arts col­lege. So there was­n’t as much, vari­ety of things you can study, and you kind of had to study every­thing because it was lib­er­al arts. So there was­n’t much decid­ing on what you want­ed to do. It was in the city, so it was a lot of fun, but it was pret­ty expen­sive for the lim­it­ed amount of choic­es that you got. I decid­ed to go to col­lege because orig­i­nal­ly I want­ed to become a pedi­a­tri­cian or a der­ma­tol­o­gist. I also went to col­lege because of a huge rea­son of soci­ety telling you that col­lege is a huge way to become suc­cess­ful lat­er on in life. And I felt like if I did­n’t go to col­lege, I would­n’t be as suc­cess­ful lat­er on and pret­ty lost, and I felt like it was the only choice for me.

Anna: Do you still think that that’s the case?

Car­ly: No, I still don’t think that’s the case, not for me. I feel like right now, col­lege is a good. I’m hap­py I went to col­lege, but see­ing what hap­pened with oth­er fam­i­ly mem­bers when it came to going to col­lege and the pres­sures of col­lege, I feel like it just shows that col­lege can be a big waste of time and mon­ey. for exam­ple, like my broth­er, he went to col­lege for com­mu­ni­ca­tion. He was not a huge col­lege stu­dent or not a huge, just stu­dent in gen­er­al. And he felt pres­sured to go, espe­cial­ly by my par­ents, just because they love him and they want him to do well. But he did­n’t real­ly want to go to col­lege, and he end­ed up going there, hav­ing to do an extra year, spend­ing more mon­ey. And now he’s final­ly grad­u­at­ed, but doing noth­ing with his edu­ca­tion, just in debt. And he, is just work­ing for a day­care, which has noth­ing to do with what he stud­ied. And then my oth­er cousins went to school to be a vet. Now she just walks dogs. One of them did­n’t even fin­ish and end­ed up doing almost all four years watt grad­u­a­tion, but did­n’t have a diplo­ma. And, anoth­er one just dropped out. So I feel like it’s not real­ly worth it for everyone.

Anna: So was there ever a time where you con­sid­ered, like, the col­lege was­n’t maybe for you, or maybe con­sid­ered either tak­ing a gap year or just drop­ping out and pur­su­ing some­thing else?

Car­ly: Yeah, I def­i­nite­ly had a time where it felt like every­thing was going down the drain, espe­cial­ly when I was out of man­u­al. after my first year, I was like, maybe col­lege just isn’t for me. But I stuck it out one more semes­ter there, and when I was there every sin­gle day, I want­ed to drop out, and I thought there was oth­er things I could do. I was like, I’ll just get my per­son­al train­ing cer­tifi­cate. But I decid­ed to stick it out because I just could­n’t give up on myself yet, and I felt like that was giv­ing up on myself. And instead of tak­ing a gap year, I went to com­mu­ni­ty col­lege for one semes­ter and then went straight into UConn.

Anna: So in what ways do the pros out­weigh the cons of col­lege for you?

Car­ly: the pros out­weigh the cons because I feel like, sta­tis­ti­cal­ly, if you do look at it, a col­lege degree will get you a lot fur­ther in life. And that’s not going to say that if you don’t get a col­lege edu­ca­tion, you can’t be suc­cess­ful, because there’s many peo­ple who are suc­cess­ful with­out it. My own moth­er does not have a col­lege edu­ca­tion, and she’s very suc­cess­ful busi­ness­woman. But I feel like for me, a col­lege edu­ca­tion is just the most ben­e­fi­cial because I’m the type of per­son who needs that to stay on track.

Anna: So how do you see your col­lege edu­ca­tion help­ing you in the future?

Car­ly: I see it help­ing me again with just hav­ing. Try­ing, to get a job with that. And your back­ground is just phe­nom­e­nal. And then just the edu­ca­tion in gen­er­al, the con­fi­dence going into a work­place, know­ing you have that back­ground expe­ri­ence, you have that back­ground education.

Anna: So is it sur­pris­ing to you that there’s been a decline in pos­i­tive pub­lic
opin­ion and even an over­all col­lege enrollment?

Car­ly: no, I’m not sur­prised what­so­ev­er because I feel like there’s so many
oppor­tu­ni­ties oth­er than col­lege nowadays.

Car­ly: That can real­ly set kids up. And even like, nor­mal­iz­ing dif­fer­ences has
become so big today that I’m not shocked that peo­ple speak­ing their mind about not want­i­ng to fur­ther their education.

Anna: Look­ing back, what is some­thing that you wish you could tell your past self when you were struggling?

Car­ly: I would kind of just say, take it one step at a time.

Lily: I think prob­a­bly to trust my gut.

Anna: Mil­lions of young adults are decid­ing every year whether or not col­lege is the right choice for them, whether it is because of finan­cial impli­ca­tions, men­tal health strug­gles, or sim­ply ques­tion­ing the inher­ent val­ue of a col­lege degree. Both Lily and Car­ly had sim­i­lar strug­gles but took dif­fer­ent paths, one that fit their goals and plans, that made sense and made them hap­py. There are mil­lions of sto­ries left untold. What­ev­er it is and wher­ev­er you stand, I hope that the sto­ries told today could help you find com­fort or maybe even a path with­in the big­ger picture.

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