Why Would-Be Students Aren’t Choosing College

A new study explores why students drop out of college or choose not to enroll.

September 29, 2022
A cartoon image of a man in a red shirt and backpack standing at a crossroads of three arrows against a blue background.
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A new study suggests that students choose to stop out of college and others choose not to enroll in the first place because of a range of “psychographics,” or psychological factors, including doubts about the financial returns of a college education and an awareness of other career training options outside traditional degree programs.

The study draws on responses from 11 focus groups and an online survey of 1,675 people between the ages of 18 and 30 who decided not to go to college or stopped out of a college program. The survey was fielded in March and April of this year and was conducted by HCM Strategists, a public policy and advocacy consulting firm, and Edge Research, a marketing research firm, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Terrell Halaska Dunn, a partner at HCM Strategies, said while enrollment has dropped precipitously during the pandemic, especially at community colleges, the declines have been occurring for more than a decade, and the goal of the study is to explore why.

“We wanted to really try and understand what’s driving these enrollment drops,” she said. “What’s making people choose something other than college? We’ve been making the case, backed by data, that higher education provides the best opportunity for social and economic mobility, that a college degree really represents the best long-term value for people. So why aren’t those arguments persuasive with an increasing part of the population?”

The study found that 46 percent of survey respondents planned on going or returning to college, while 41 percent felt unsure, and 13 percent did not plan to enroll at all. Of those planning to attend college, 15 percent expected to enroll within the next six months, 31 percent said within six months to a year and 37 percent said within one to three years.

People had a variety of reasons for not attending or completing college, including but not limited to financial barriers. The study found that 38 percent of students didn’t enroll because of fears about the cost of college and amassing debt, 27 percent felt college would be “too stressful” or “too much pressure,” 26 percent believed it was more important to work and earn money, and 25 percent felt uncertainty about their career trajectories and what they wanted to study.

Adam Burns, COO of Edge Research, said the group surveyed was far from a “monolith.” College affordability was a major concern among those not enrolling in college, but psychological barriers also played into their decision making, including “one’s current life satisfaction … or challenges associated with the stress or just being able to complete tasks in college.”

“It became very clear to us that just focusing on addressing the financial burdens would not solve the problem of this movement away from postsecondary education,” he said.

He also noted that while many campus leaders fear a demographic cliff, a drop in the number of traditional college-age students, demographics are “important and relevant” but not the only reason for enrollment declines. These psychological factors that deter people from college attendance are another important part of the picture and can help determine what students need to enroll and stay enrolled.

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The study explores which student supports respondents thought would help them. Among the top choices were a free class on personal finance, more flexible programs, financial aid advising and job counseling.

The respondents were also taking advantage of, and saw value in, alternative modes of education outside of pursuing a degree, according to the study. Almost half of the group, 47 percent, reported they had taken or were currently taking classes on YouTube. Roughly a quarter of respondents had participated in courses to receive a license, and 22 percent participated in classes to earn a verified certificate.

The majority of respondents, 70 percent, agreed that on-the-job training was the best way to advance in a career. While 35 percent saw a four-year degree as having “excellent value,” the same percentage of respondents saw courses building toward a license as having excellent value. Only 28 percent described a two-year degree as of excellent value, while 34 percent saw courses toward a verified certificate and 33 percent saw courses toward a professional certification as having high returns.

A larger percentage of respondents agreed they needed a certification proving their skills versus a degree to get a good job—68 percent and 57 percent respectively.

“The education marketplace has shifted significantly and fundamentally,” Burns said. “As we all know, there are more education options at folks’ disposal now more than ever before, and this audience is absolutely taking advantage of these multiple pathways.”

The study ultimately divides survey respondents into four categories based on their motivations for not attending college, their plans for the future and what kinds of supports they might need. It determined that 35 percent of would-be students question the returns of a college degree and would appreciate supports that guide them in how to get the most value out of a program. Some 29 percent are content with their current circumstances and worry about the opportunity cost of going to college. Meanwhile, 18 percent are deterred by anxieties and would benefit from a wide range of supports, and 19 percent don’t see college as the right fit for them.

Burns noted that this means some of the traditional marketing messaging colleges have used don’t work as well for these students.

They’re focused “on value, investment, opportunity cost,” he said. So, messaging about colleges as “a place to go find one’s self, to go find one’s passion, does miss the mark for several in this audience.”

Martin Van Der Werf, director of editorial and educational policy at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said most potential students today are likely thinking about college this way.

One of his main takeaways from the study was that higher ed institutions need to do a better job of communicating to prospective students that the “skills that they’re learning are going to be translatable to the workforce” and “we’re building you toward something bigger.”

“You have to remember that 80 percent of people who are involved in postsecondary education or training, they’re not going to an elite college,” he added. “They’re far more interested in what the translation is from college to job. And part of that is they just don’t have time or money to explore. For them it’s really about ‘How quickly can I turn this into something that will allow me to live a better life?’”

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