Just 65.9 percent of students who graduated from high school in spring 2013 had enrolled in college by last October.

The proportion of high school students in the U.S. who go on to college rose regularly for decades but now appears to be declining.

Last October, just 65.9 percent of people who had graduated from high school the previous spring had enrolled in college, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said this week. That was down from 66.2 percent the previous year and was the lowest figure in a decade. The high point came in 2009, when 70.1 percent of new graduates had gone on to college.

“Falling college enrollment indicates that upward mobility may become more difficult for working-class and disadvantaged high school graduates,” said Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. “It’s another part of the long-term scarring process of the Great Recession that has been partly hidden.” She said that might reflect poorer employment prospects for parents and students who would have worked their way through college a few years ago, and added that many parents in the past paid for college by refinancing mortgages, an alternative no longer available to many families.

At the same time, there were some encouraging signs in the report, which is released annually. The bureau reported that 51 percent of the high school graduates who did not go on to college had jobs by October, and that 74 percent were in the labor force, meaning they either were employed or were looking for work.

Those figures may not sound high, but they are up from the last couple of years, and may be an indication that the labor market has improved at least a little.

On the other hand, only 43 percent of new high school dropouts were part of the labor force in October, a figure that was the lowest for the last 20 years, the period for which the figures are available. But there was an increase in the proportion of new high school dropouts who had jobs, to 31 percent from 24 percent in 2012, which could be another indication of an improving economy.

The figures are volatile from year to year, partly because they come from the bureau’s household survey, in which 60,000 households are asked each month about the employment status of all members of the household who are 16 years of age or older. Each October, additional questions are asked of the respondents to produce this report, which was not published until this week as the bureau sought to make sure it had made appropriate adjustments for revised population estimates.

Most of those households have no one who recently left school, and as a result there can be large errors. The bureau said the estimated 65.9 percent figure for high school graduates who went on to college could be off by as much as 2.4 percentage points in either direction. The margins of error for the enrollment estimates of 68.4 percent for young women, and 63.5 percent for young men, were even larger.

Still, there seems to be little doubt that the long-term trend of more and more high school graduates going to college has halted, if not reversed. As recently as 1976, the enrollment figure was below 50 percent. It rose to 69 percent by 2005, and since then has fluctuated.

Photo credit: Huffington Post

Via New York Times