National Study Finds High Schoolers Keenly Aware of Current In-Demand Jobs, Impacting Education Choices After Graduation

May 18, 2022

Fifth National “Question The Quo” Survey Uncovers Ongoing Shifts in Behavior Since Before Pandemic With Teens Looking to Shorten Their Path to a Career

MINNEAPOLIS—Today’s high schoolers are keenly aware of the impact the pandemic had on the job market and are evaluating their options as they forge their path to a career, according to the latest . The most recent national study of 14-18-year-olds in the United States, fielded in January, found three-quarters have heard about worker shortages, and more than one-third are more likely to pursue an education or career in an in-demand field.

“The most stunning finding for me has been how insightful, intuitive and engaged this demographic is when it comes to understanding the career landscape, the impact of student debt and the options available to them in the current environment,” said Jeremy Wheaton, president and CEO of ECMC Group. “Today’s students have experienced the pandemic’s impact, and they want to forge their own path—a path that is shorter in duration, more affordable and connects directly to a career—especially a career in a field that needs workers.”

According to this survey, two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, half of high schoolers are no longer considering four-year college and less than half believe a four-year degree will make them successful. More than half are open to a path other than four-year college, and because of the pandemic, one-third say they’re more comfortable with following a shorter pathway. Despite that, 85% feel pressure to pursue a four-year degree.

In addition and despite classrooms largely returning to pre-pandemic experiences, less than half feel prepared for their education after high school.

The findings are from the latest iteration of ECMC Group’s Question The Quo Education Pulse survey, which has examined high schoolers’ attitudes about their future education and career aspirations since before the pandemic and throughout. The five surveys of more than 5,300 high school students ages 14-18, conducted in partnership with VICE Media, took place between February 2020 and January 2022 and sought to uncover how teens are thinking about and planning for their future education and careers amidst an ever-changing pandemic environment.

Teens believe postsecondary education is not a way to find a career, but rather to refine and pursue career options; expect employers to play a role in their ongoing education

Seventy-five percent of high schoolers have a career in mind and 74% believe it is important to have their career plans determined when they graduate from high school. Also, 73% think a direct path to a career is essential in postsecondary education and 39% have taken classes on career exploration or have participated in a program to help them determine future career paths.

Teens also view postsecondary education as a lifelong endeavor and expect employers and the government to play a role. Eighty-six percent believe businesses should support education by providing formal education and providing additional money to pay off student loans and 91% believe the government should support education by providing additional money to pay off student loans and subsidizing/paying for education.

“Two years into the pandemic, and we are seeing that the impacts on these students appear to be here to stay,” Wheaton said. “The pressure they’re feeling comes from many directions including from society at large, so it’s more important than ever that we create, provide and invest in high-quality education options that meet their needs as well as the needs of our economy.”

Additional findings include:

High school students are approaching education and careers with in-demand fields in mind

  • 75% of teens have heard about workforce shortages
    • Common sources of this information include social media (62%), parents/family (51%) and traditional news media (45%)
  • Teens are aware of worker shortages in in-demand fields, many of which do not require four-year degrees: teaching, healthcare, human services, hospitality, skilled trades
  • 35% are more likely to pursue jobs in the current impacted, in-demand careers
  • 36% are more likely to pursue education focused on an impacted, in-demand career

Gen Z remains open to pathways other than four-year college

  • 51% of teens are considering attending a four-year college (20 percentage points less than in May 2020)
  • 85% said they feel pressure to pursue a four-year degree, despite 52% saying they are open to a different path
    • 63% said they feel pressure from parents/guardians/family (an increase since September 2021)
    • 47% said they feel pressure from society (an increase since September 2021)
  • 42% said their post-high school education should last less than four years, and 31% said it should last two years or less

Yet many don’t feel ready for the next step

  • Only 39% feel that their high school has prepared them for postsecondary education
  • 46% want more formalized learning throughout their lifetime

Gen Z is connecting skills—and not necessarily degrees—to jobs

  • 52% believe they can be successful with skills they gain from education attained in three years or less
  • 58% say a skill-based education (e.g., trade skills, nursing, STEM, etc.) makes sense in today’s world
  • Nearly one-third would prefer to gain skills through several short (one year or less) experiences over a lifetime vs. one long education experience (four years or more)
  • 81% said learning the skills they need to be successful is an important factor in their decision about education after high school
  • Nearly one-third would consider enrolling in career and technical education if there was a guarantee that they would develop stronger skills

Cost is still a concern and a factor in the decision-making process

  • More than 63% said the cost of tuition and the amount of student loans they would need were important factors in what they choose to do after high school
  • 59% worry about how they will pay for college (has remained steady for the past two years)
  • 43% said the cost of college is the most important element in their education decision, outranking job placements, completion rates and college rankings

Career and technical education (CTE) is becoming a more visible option

  • More than one-third believe a CTE pathway can lead them to success
  • 54% of students are aware of what career and technical education is (13 percentage-point increase since February 2020, consistent since September 2021)
  • 33% said they’d be more likely to pursue career and technical education if there was a stronger guarantee of a job after graduation, and 28% said they would if it was viewed as valuable as a four-year degree (consistent since January 2021)

Socioeconomic differences in mindsets may exacerbate income inequality

  • 19-percentage-point difference between students from low-income households and those from high-income households who believe education after high school is necessary (50% vs. 69%)
  • 34-percentage-point difference between students from low-income households and those from high-income households who are considering four-year college (40% vs. 74%)
  • Students from low-income households generally have less access to career exploration resources
  • Earning potential is significantly more important to students from high-income households compared to those from low-income households

“Teens continue to tell us that real-world experiences in education will lead them to career success,” said Wheaton. “However, despite their perspective on the jobs they want to enter, they clearly need more information about what it takes to get there. Only by working together across policymakers, businesses, educators and learners can we illuminate all the viable pathways that lead to promising futures with upward career trajectories.”

The surveys are part of ECMC Group’s Question The Quo campaign, which aims to empower students to learn about the various higher education options available and to take the career path that’s right for them.

Survey Methodology
ECMC Group, in partnership with VICE Media, conducted four national Question The Quo Education Pulse surveys. The first survey of 1,177 high school students was conducted Feb. 25-March 2, 2020; the second survey of 1,025 high school students was conducted May 14-20, 2020; the third survey of 1,001 high school students was conducted Jan. 4-19, 2021; the fourth survey of 1,052 high school students was conducted Sept. 20-Oct. 3, 2021; the fifth survey of 1,062 high school students was conducted Jan. 23-Feb 11, 2022.