Americans Without Degrees Cite College Costs, Uncertain Benefits As Roadblocks

Quick Takeaways:

  • 43 percent of survey respondents say they are satisfied with their current level of education
  • The high cost of college was the most cited reason for not attending college
  • When asked to estimate how much community college would cost, nearly 80 percent of respondents overestimated or were unable or unwilling to provide an estimate

By Brittany Hackett, Communications Staff

While most Americans continue to believe there is value in postsecondary education, many adults feel it costs too much and do not see how returning to school will help them, according to a new report.

The report, from the American Enterprise Institute’s Center on Higher Education Reform, examined survey responses from just over 1,500 adult Americans between the ages of 25 and 44 who had completed high school but did not have a college degree. The survey focused on four areas:

  • Whether adults without a college degree aspire to higher levels of education;
  • Whether they feel the design of the current higher education system meets their needs;
  • Whether they hold accurate beliefs about the cost of public two-year institutions; and 
  • How they view the economic returns to different types of education.

While 84 percent of respondents said that some education beyond high school is necessary, 43 percent said they were satisfied with their current level of education and only one-third said they were interested in earning a bachelor’s degree. Fourteen percent said they aspired to an associate degree and 10 percent aspired to an occupational field-related certificate. 

Notably, 51 percent of those who only had a high school diploma said they were satisfied with their current level of education, with the remaining half almost evenly split on wanting to earn a bachelor’s degree (23 percent) or an associate degree (27 percent). Among respondents who had “some college,” around one-third were satisfied with their current education level and 46 percent were interested in earning a bachelor’s degree or higher.

The survey showed that respondents between the ages of 33 and 44 were more likely to be satisfied with their education than those ages 25 to 34, 49 percent to 38 percent, respectively. The explanation for this finding, according to the report, may be that “many of these respondents have likely worked their way to a fulfilling life at their current level of education.”

Despite the aspirations of many of the respondents, the majority (70 percent) said they were unlikely to enroll in postsecondary education within the next year. Among high school graduates, 75 percent said they would not enroll in postsecondary education the next year, compared with only 9 percent who said they would probably or defiantly enroll. Sixty-one percent of those with some college said they were not likely to enroll, compared with 23 percent who said they planned to do so.

The high cost of college was the most cited reason for not attending college, with 54 percent of overall respondents and 57 percent of high school graduates answering as such. Only 60 percent of respondents said that postsecondary education is worth the cost and 57 percent said that the current higher education system is not designed to meet the needs of adults with family or work responsibilities. When asked about college affordability, 75 percent selected “even with financial aid, college is still too expensive for people to afford” rather than “with financial aid, anyone can afford to enroll in college if they wish.”

Other findings of the study include:

  • When asked to estimate how much community college would cost, nearly 80 percent of respondents overestimated or were unable or unwilling to provide an estimate;
  • Adults without a college degree are uncertain about the value of different credentials, though a bachelor’s degree was viewed as the most valuable credential; and
  • Between 30 percent and 40 percent of respondents were not sure that further education would increase their earnings.

While many of the respondents said they were satisfied with their current level of education, “others who would benefit from further education likely have imperfect information on the costs and benefits of different postsecondary pathways,” according to the report. “If anxiety about college affordability reflects information problems as well as a genuine inability to pay, our approach to policy should acknowledge that expanding opportunity is not only a question of public spending.”

 

Publication Date: 4/22/2015


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