News outlets had widely reported a drop in U.S. college enrollment, but nobody had really explained why. Education reporter Collin Binkley and Ohio-based video journalist Patrick Orsagos figured the best way to find out was to talk with young adults themselves.

Binkley won a grant from the Education Writers Association and traveled with Orsagos to western Tennessee, where the pair conducted cross-format interviews with high school graduates whose stories exposed the reasons behind the trend: The high cost of higher education. Fear of student debt. A hot job market. General disillusionment with education after high school experiences disrupted by the pandemic and school closures.   

The story centered on the experiences of people Binkley and Orsagos met during a week of reporting in Tennessee. One recent graduate described how he had planned to attend college, but as he saw less of his teachers during online school, he felt a new sense of independence. That translated into a “do-it-yourself” attitude about his working life. The story laid out fearful implications of the trend for labor shortages in fields including health care, but it also highlighted a reason for optimism: the growing demand for apprenticeships in the trades. One student in the story who opted out of college has found fulfillment by getting paid for hands-on work while mastering a craft.

Dario Lopez handled a custom layout for APNews that made use of photographs by freelancer Mark Zaleski and a data visualization by reporter Sharon Lurye.  

The story sparked wide discussion about the cost of college, the need for reform in higher education and the relevance of a bachelor’s degree in today’s economy. The day after publication the story landed on Reddit’s “popular” page, thanks to a post on the “Futurology” subreddit that received more than 25,000 upvotes and 3,000 comments. It appeared on at least 21 newspaper front pages, with good play on The Tennessean, The Jackson Sun, The Columbus Dispatch, The Roanoke Times and the Ithaca Journal, among others.  

The story was tweeted by several members of Congress, including Sen. Marco Rubio, who said: “Colleges are failing Americans and our country. We need a 21st-century education system that embraces all options. And we need an economy that supports them.” Michael Itzkowitz, a former Education Department official under Obama, shared the story and said: “It’s becoming more apparent that being able to determine the value of a college degree or college program will be critical for students and employers moving forward.” Parents, professors and other readers reached out via email and social media, saying the story resonated with them and demonstrated the need for America’s colleges to offer something young people see value in. And the former admissions director at Jackson State Community College offered to advise one of the students in the story on her college options; that student said she plans to contact him.  

For going to the source to find the reasons behind a major trend, Binkley and Orsagos share this week’s Best of the Week — First Place honors.

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