College for Everyone? Why Some of Gen Z are Opting Out

College for Everyone? Why Some of Gen Z are Opting Out

08.31.21
Photo: MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images
08.31.21

About eight months into the COVID, I knew something was seriously wrong. My hobbies no longer interested me. I had lost all motivation to complete my schoolwork. Social interaction, no matter how brief, left me feeling drained — sometimes for days at a time.

I felt like I was living the same day over and over again: waking up, checking the rate of infection, scanning the news for any sign of vaccine progress, turning on my computer, going to Zoom school, doing my homework, having dinner, going to sleep. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

In a word, I was depressed. And I wasn’t alone. According to a survey by America’s Promise Alliance, a nonprofit group that seeks to improve the lives of American youth, 72% of high schoolers reported their mental health worsening over the span of a month. Across the board, it seems Gen Z was having a hard time coping with the isolation of COVID.

I personally found comfort in the knowledge that I would be attending college soon. On the days where I couldn’t get out of bed, I found solace scrolling through university websites, imagining the new life I would carve out for myself once I got out of the house. For me, the prospect of going to college was a light at the end of the tunnel. 

However, it seems that many of my peers don’t necessarily share the same excitement. According to the same study, 78% of high school juniors and seniors found their post-secondary plans changing during the pandemic — the biggest change being where people attend college and for how long. Some high schoolers chose not to attend college at all. Hadassah Zenor-Davis, owner of Heiress XO Cosmetics, says her decision to start a small business straight out of high school was as informed by her mental health troubles as it was by her lack of interest in continuing school.

“I’ve always known that I wasn’t a college person, but I come from a family that [expects you] to go to college whether you want to or not … So I applied to colleges, but I knew I wasn’t going to go. At the same time, I was struggling with mental health issues … specifically really bad anxiety and depression,” Zenor-Davis said. “I found myself being like, ‘OK, I know I want to be a business owner, but I also know that college isn’t for me. What am I about to do with my life?’”

For Zenor-Davis, the solution was focusing on a new creative outlet. “[Starting a business] was not only helpful for my future, but also for me in the present,” she said. “I was able to put my energy into something to get me out of the slump of the pandemic.”

This mentality seems pretty common amongst young people. In the face of an unprecedentedly difficult school year, one of the only ways for us to make sense of our lives was by looking ahead. Surviving the pandemic became about planning for the future, whether that was by applying to college, starting a small business, or opting to take a gap year. This resilience and flexibility have made it possible for us to keep moving forward, even when circumstances seemed overwhelming.

Going into the next year, I hope I can carry some of this strength with me, and remember that investing in the future is a necessary way to cope with the present.