Survey: Financial Barriers Are The Biggest Reasons Why People Don’t Enroll in Higher Education

By Maria Carrasco, NASFAA Staff Reporter

A new survey from Gallup and the Lumina Foundation found that for U.S. adults without a college degree or credential, financial barriers are the biggest reasons why they aren’t currently enrolled in higher education. 

The survey, which focused on the state of higher education in 2023, found that for adults who never enrolled in college, or stopped-out before they could earn their degree or credential, the cost of a degree or credential was the top reason why they weren’t enrolled, at 55%. Second and third on the list were issues with affordability due to inflation, at 45%, and the need to work, at 38%.

“After decades of skyrocketing costs, the prices of attending public and private four-year institutions have started to come down, falling by about 10% since the start of the pandemic, after accounting for inflation,” the survey stated. “This should come as good news for current and prospective students, but for many, the cost of a college education is still insurmountable.”

For this survey, which builds upon previous studies, Gallup recorded responses from U.S. adults aged 18 to 59 with a high school diploma or equivalent among three groups, including: 6,008 students who are currently enrolled in a postsecondary education program; 3,004 adults with some college experience but no degree who are not currently enrolled in postsecondary training or education; and 3,003 adults with no postsecondary education who have never enrolled in a postsecondary education program. 

When it comes to affordability in higher education, 72% of both adults that have stopped-out or have never enrolled in a postsecondary program said that community college is very or somewhat affordable. Of that same group just 23% said private, not-for-profit, four-year colleges are very or somewhat affordable. 

In terms of what initiatives would help both groups of currently unenrolled adults enroll into a postsecondary program, 60% said scholarships, grants and fellowships to reduce the cost of attendance would be very helpful. Fifty-four percent said student loan forgiveness programs and 47% said emergency aid to help students through an unexpected financial crisis would be very helpful. 

“There are generally few differences between adults who have stopped out and those who have never enrolled on what would be most helpful in terms of affording college,” the report noted. “However, substantially fewer of those who have never been enrolled consider scholarships, grants and fellowships, emergency aid or loan forgiveness programs to be very helpful, compared with those who have stopped out.”

For the students who are currently enrolled in a postsecondary program, 41% said it is very difficult or difficult to remain enrolled. The top reason why these students considered stopping their coursework is emotional stress, at 55%. However, 29% of students also said it was due to the cost of the postsecondary program, and 22% said it was because of inflation. 

The top reason why those students are currently still enrolled in both associate degree and bachelor degree programs is because of financial aid. Fifty-eight percent of those in an associate-degree program said they’re still enrolled because of financial aid, and 59% of those in a bachelor-degree program said they’re still enrolled because of financial aid. 

In terms of student loans, 19% of currently enrolled students have student loans and are making payments. Thirty-two percent of those students have student loans but are not making payments and are deferred.

For adults who stopped-out of their program, 8% said they have loans and are making payments, while 19% have student loans but are not making payments and are deferred. However, if stopped-out adults were able to get all or some of their student loans forgiven, many would say they’d be very likely to reenroll, at 47%, while 31% said they’d be somewhat likely. 

The survey concludes that there are additional and substantial barriers for students to complete a degree or credential that institutions need to consider. Beyond financial obstacles, adults face barriers with emotional stress and mental health. 

“Even with pandemic-era restrictions lifting and concerns about COVID-19 receding, the study finds many currently enrolled students are still struggling,” the survey noted. “Students in postsecondary programs were finding it as difficult to remain enrolled in their programs in 2022 as they did the previous year, and more students — particularly Black, Hispanic and male students — were considering stopping their coursework before completion.”


Publication Date: 5/4/2023

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