New Survey Paints Hopeful Picture on Higher Ed Value, But Costs and Completion Barriers Remain

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Senior Staff Reporter

The higher education sector has faced a litany of challenges in recent years, including the pandemic, rising college costs, downward enrollment trends, and the delayed implementation of the 2024-25 FAFSA. But a new survey has found some positive indicators for perceived economic benefits offered by a postsecondary education.

During a pair of panel discussions on Wednesday, Gallup and the Lumina Foundation formally unveiled their “2024 State of Higher Education Report,” an updated survey, last unveiled in 2023, that seeks to provide both policymakers and institutions with ways to highlight the value of postsecondary education.

The survey collected responses from over 14,000 U.S. adults aged 18 to 59 without a college degree who are either currently enrolled, stopped out, or have never enrolled in higher education. The questions measured these groups’ attitudes toward, and interest in pursuing education beyond high school.

Among the main findings, nearly all respondents reported that at least one postsecondary credential was either “extremely” or “very” valuable. More than nine in 10 adults said at least one credential is valuable.

What’s more, half of unenrolled adults indicated that they were likely to pursue a credential in the next five years.

Since the 2021 survey, the number of unenrolled adults who have considered enrolling in postsecondary education has jumped 15 percentage points, with 59% of unenrolled adults in the past two years having considered additional education.

The vast majority of current or prospective students (84%) cite employment opportunities as a reason to pursue a degree or credential.

However, the survey found some concerning trends, particularly around costs and a lack of financial aid being significant barriers to enrollment. Flexibility in course delivery was another important factor.

According to the survey, at least half of adults without a degree said financial aid or their personal income were “very” important factors in potential or continued enrollment, with Black and Hispanic adults being especially likely to say these were “very” important factors.

For currently enrolled students, 1 in 3 said they considered stopping out, with 64% citing emotional or mental health stress. This statistic is more than twice the percentage of those who cited cost as a potential cause for stopping out.

Following the release of the report, Gallup and Lumina hosted a panel of college presidents and chancellors who provided insight into the ways in which their schools have worked to increase college access, prevent students from stopping out, and make sure their campuses foster a sense of belonging.

Participants included former Education Secretary John King Jr., who is now the chancellor at the State University of New York. King urged Congress to double the Pell Grant, and stressed the need for the federal and state government to step up and invest in colleges. King cited various programs’ return on investment and highlighted the ways in which these programs have benefited states looking to bolster their economies.

A second panel – which focused more directly on the current landscape of higher education policymaking with insights from state, institutional, and federal perspectives – included Education Under Secretary James Kvaal, who provided an update on the current state of the 2024-25 FAFSA rollout. Kvaal once more told students and families that now is the time to fill out and submit an application.

During the discussion, Kvaal noted that this year would see the lowest verification rates since the pandemic, with flexibilities implemented due to the delayed FAFSA rollout. Kvaal said that ED would still investigate instances where fraud or abuse is indicated.

Kvaal recognized the challenges with the rollout and referred to this year as a “big transition year.” He also said that the implementation of FAFSA simplification did not go as well as ED would have liked.

While the previous application backlog for this cycle has been addressed, and students can now expect their applications to be sent to colleges within three days of submission, experts have begun to express concern about the upcoming cycle.

During the panel’s discussion, guests questioned whether issues and glitches that popped up during the 2024-25 FAFSA cycle will plague the timeline for the upcoming cycle set to open on October 1, 2024.

“We take seriously the needs that colleges have to get through this year,” Kvaal said. “This year hasn’t gone as planned and that has meant a lot of extra work for colleges and universities among others, and right now a lot of anxiety and uncertainty about what next fall is going to look like. No one at the department is taking that lightly. We understand how important the FAFSA is.”

In the short-term, Kvaal said the department is focused on increasing completion rates and making sure that every student can get the help they need.

Campus officials who joined Kvaal on the panel said that there is still time for enrollment trends and FAFSA completion rates to recover and are engaged in new direct communication campaigns to inform students of the status of the FAFSA form.


Publication Date: 5/9/2024

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