FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – For the longest time, Findlay Wasvick wanted to go into the medical field.

She even geared her high school education toward that goal, taking classes that would help her further that dream – which always meant she was going to college. And while that still might be a possibility, other ideas have popped into the soon-to-be Leo High School senior’s head about her immediate future after graduation next year.

“Lately, I’ve been talking about the idea of getting a realtors license,” Wasvick said. “A lot of it is exploring the idea of getting a career without a college degree. I’ve also thrown out the idea of travelling before college.”

She’s not the only one with doubts about college.

With just over half of Indiana high school graduates in the class of 2020 having pursued some form of college education beyond high school, the state’s college-going rate has dropped to its lowest point in recent history, according to a new report issued by the Indiana Commission of Higher Education.

Just 53 percent of those graduates furthered their education in a certificate program or four-year college, a six percent drop from the class of 2019 and a 12 percent drop from 2015.

There had been an incremental drop in grads attending college in recent years, but the latest data showed the “sharpest year-over-year decline,” the report said. That six percent drop represents about 4,000 fewer high school graduates going to college than the year before.

Officials largely blamed the accelerated drop on the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the report.

“There are clear economic benefits that come with greater levels of education,” Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Chris Lowery said in a statement. “People with a bachelor’s degree or higher are more likely to be employed and participating in the workforce, and they have significantly higher wages and greater overall net work.”

While it’s not always clear why high school graduates do not immediately pursue post-secondary education, the costs of attending a university or college have been steadily rising throughout recent years, with some experts gauging that college-bound grads could end up with $40,000 in debt.

For those who see graduation looming and hear regular talk of the hazards of college loans in the news media – along with politicians kicking around the idea of debt forgiveness that may or may not materialize – money has become a big concern.

“It is kind of nerve-wracking,” Wasvick said. “As kids, so far, all you know is your parents pay for this or your parents pay for that. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that, if I do go (to college), this is the first big thing I’m going to have to partly pay for.”

With money a possible issue, local universities and colleges seem to be reaping the benefits, according to the report’s data. Large percentages of local high school graduates who enrolled in college chose schools like Purdue University Fort Wayne and Ivy Tech.

Being close to home might be a perk nowadays instead of going away to college.

“When I was a freshman and sophomore, I really wanted to go to (Indiana University – Bloomington),” Wasvick said. “Lately, though, hearing other people talk about it, I think it kind of changed my perspective on it, now that I know what money is all about. That’s kind of the reason I now want to stay around here.”

Among the local school districts, Northwest Allen County and Southwest Allen County schools had the highest percentage of 2020 high school graduates enrolled in college. Roughly 64 percent of grads from NACS enrolled in some type of college while 63 percent of SACS grads did so, as well, according to the higher education commission’s report.

Those percentages dropped to 45 percent among East Allen County Schools graduates and 41 percent among Fort Wayne Community Schools graduates, according to the report.

The report also found it is the first time in recent history the state’s male college-going rate has dipped below half – it now sits at 46 percent. Women made up most college enrollees from the class of 2020 at 61 percent, the report said.

Data also showed that while the overall decline impacted every student demographic, Black students saw the largest decline in college-growing rates before and during the pandemic compared to all other races and ethnicities followed by Hispanic and Latino students.

Low-income students also saw a greater decrease in college-going rates compared to higher-income peers, according to the report.

“It is critical that we ensure all Hoosiers can access the opportunity that education and training beyond high school can provide,” Lowery said.

The commission recommended ways to easily ensure all students eligible are easily enrolled into the 21st Century Scholars program, which is an early college promise program, as well as increase grant funding that was cut during the Great Recession to get college numbers up.

“Now is the time for action,” Lowery said. “Indiana has proven programs and policies that work significantly to move the needle on postsecondary attainment.”