Nearly half of adults who responded to a national survey said self-doubt is one of the largest challenges they would face if they enrolled in a postsecondary education or training program.
Self-doubt was one of the top three challenges respondents cited, below time and above cost.
The new data are included in the findings from the latest "Public Viewpoints" report from Strada Education Network, which surveyed American adults on their motivations for pursuing more education, as well as the barriers they face.
The importance of mental barriers was one of the findings that stuck out the most, said Nichole Torpey-Saboe, director of research at Strada. It's yet another layer colleges have to consider when trying to attract people without degrees for enrollment.
"As important as it is to make it affordable, they also have to think about how they can make students feel like they belong," Torpey-Saboe said.
Nearly half of respondents said it would be challenging to pursue more education because they fear they won't succeed or that they've been out of school too long, or both.
About the Strada Polling Data
Inside Higher Ed and Strada Education Network partner on Public Viewpoint. Strada provides funding to Inside Higher Ed to support its coverage of the polling data and related workforce issues. Inside Higher Ed maintains editorial independence and full discretion over its coverage.
"I think the finding on self-doubt as a major barrier is one we should be paying closer attention to in higher ed," said Sarah Horn, CEO of ReUp Education.
Through her work with people who have some college credits but no degree, Horn has found that about 80 percent are motivated to improve their family's life or set an example.
"If learners don’t see a way that they can become successful, they start to question if it’s worth it -- and that has large ripple effects," Horn said.
Paul Dosal, vice president for student success at the University of South Florida, also was surprised to see how high self-doubt ranked. The finding shows that institutions need to focus on students' emotional well-being, in addition to their academic and financial needs, he said.
Time and cost also are concerns, however. Nearly 40 percent of respondents said it would be difficult to get time away from work, and 35 percent said schedules and course times were a barrier. More than one-quarter also said balancing school and childcare would be a problem.
More than half of respondents said they would face at least one logistical barrier if they pursued further education, and about one-quarter said they would face at least three barriers related to time.
Equity Gaps With Technology
Other challenges flagged by respondents highlighted the digital divide. Urban residents and Latinx adults were most likely to say access to a computer or the internet would be a significant barrier in pursuing further education, followed by Black adults and rural residents. Suburban residents and white adults were least likely to say those things are a significant barrier.
"That’s particularly timely right now," Dosal said. "We all suspect there is a digital divide, and this certainly confirms it."
The survey also found that one-quarter of adults plan to enroll in an education or training program in the next six months, but they would prefer to enroll in a nondegree program.
A combined 63 percent of respondents said that, if they were to enroll in a program in the next six months, they would prefer it to be a certification program or just a few courses to gain skills for work or to pursue personal interests.
Sixty percent or more of the respondents said advancing their careers and earning more money were the biggest factors in their decisions for pursuing further education.
This reflects a disconnect in what people know about which programs are most valuable, said Wil Del Pilar, vice president of higher education policy and practice at the Education Trust.
"Research shows that shorter-term credentials have very little to no financial impact," he said, adding that the greatest value is at the bachelor's degree level. It's possible that people also view these programs as cheaper, easier and faster compared to traditional degree programs. If they have self-doubt, they may be more inclined to take the program with less risk attached and that they perceive as less rigorous, Del Pilar said.
Of those who said they were not likely to enroll in a program in the next five years, many -- 42 percent -- said they wouldn't get any real benefits at work from doing so. Another 19 percent cited health or disability reasons for not pursuing further education, and 13 percent said they couldn't make the time commitment.
The survey also looked at respondents' expectations around education. Slightly more than 40 percent said they were very interested in pursuing higher education after graduating high school. Only 36 percent of those without degrees or credentials said they felt they had a good understanding of their options for paying for further education when they left high school.
Adults without degrees who are now considering education also underestimate the time and costs to complete a degree, compared to national averages. They estimated it would take 2.5 years to complete an associate degree, while the average enrollment time is 3.3 years. They estimated the degree would cost about $18,000, but the average cost to complete is about $21,000.
The underestimation is even more pronounced for bachelor's degrees. Respondents estimated it would take 3.5 years to complete this degree program, while the average enrollment time is 5.1 years. They also estimated it would cost about $33,000. The average cost to complete is about $106,000.
Adults who don't have degrees also are torn on whether or not further education is valuable. Half think that further education would help them get stable jobs in times of uncertainty, 62 percent think it would advance their career and about half think it would be worth the cost.
This reflects a messaging problem in higher education, according to Del Pilar. The industry needs to message more around affordability and financial aid, he said, so people understand their options. Colleges also need to improve transferability and stackability, so if people pursue a certificate first, they can put that work toward a degree later on.
Del Pilar also emphasized alignment with workforce demands. If people feel higher education wouldn't help them in their careers, perhaps colleges should help people explore other careers where they can get more opportunities, he said.