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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