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A person at a fork in the road with the options of going to work, to a 2-year college or to a 4-year college.

A recent Art & Science Group study analyzes the reasons why prospective four-year college students choose not to enroll immediately and what they do instead.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed |  Getty Images | rawpixel

With many four-year colleges and universities facing stagnant or shrinking enrollment, a new study from Art & Science Group suggests an overlooked group of students could help them meet their quotas: recent high school graduates who seriously considered pursuing a four-year degree but never enrolled.

In a survey conducted in February and March, Art & Science asked 2,408 high school seniors if they had ever seriously considered attending a four-year college. Researchers split students who said yes into two groups: those who are planning to attend college this fall and those who are not. Then they drilled down further among the latter group to try to understand why.

The findings, released by the higher education consulting firm Monday, show that a large majority of those not enrolled for the fall still intend to pursue a bachelor’s degree at some point. More than half (53 percent) said they intended to start at a two-year college, and one-third (33 percent) said they simply planned to take a break before returning to the classroom. Only 3 percent said they no longer planned to attend college at all.

“Demographically, most of the country is seeing a decline in the number of students. So they’re asking, ‘Who do we reach out to next?’” said Craig Goebel, a principal at Art & Science and lead author of the report. “To us, it’s the students that started the process. If you’re going to be able to convert anyone, we felt like they were the most realistic population to be able to convert.”

The researchers first conceived of the survey during the COVID-19 pandemic, when they watched swaths of high school seniors start or even complete their college applications but then elect not to go. They wanted to capture the reasoning behind the students’ decisions but in the end, they found that no one factor could be pinned down as most influential.

Some recent news coverage seems to suggest that declining confidence in the higher education system and questions about the value of a college degree—from the public as well as lawmakers—are a leading cause for enrollment declines. But according to the Art & Science survey, only 4 percent of the interested but nonattending students said “they don’t think college is a good value for the price.” And about one in four (26 percent) said they were not attending college because of broader “cost-related concerns.”

While many conservatives accuse higher ed institutions of being bastions of liberal indoctrination, the survey shows that politics played little to no part in students’ decisions not to attend. Only 5 percent of self-identified conservatives indicated that political concerns played a significant role in why they opted out of a four-year college program.

Race, income level and first-generation status each played some role in enrollment status, with lower-income and first-generation students being least likely to enroll. But no one demographic factor dominated the students’ decisions.

Sameer Gadkaree, president and CEO of The Institute for College Access and Success, said the absence of a single driving force behind students’ postsecondary plans suggests that for many, applying to college is like putting together a complex puzzle.

“Students are trying to figure out how to fit college-going into their lives. And that might involve a lot of different factors,” he said. “Depending on how you ask the question, they might call it a cost consideration. They might call it a debt consideration. They might call it a childcare consideration. But it’s this overall puzzle that students are trying to assemble as they think about whether they can go to their local college or university.”

Goebel said that perhaps what’s more important than understanding why high school seniors decide not to enroll immediately at a four-year institution is knowing they still intend to pursue a bachelor’s degree at some point.

“The overwhelming majority are not dropping out full stop on the hopes of attaining a degree,” he said. “It’s really encouraging.”

Gadkaree believes it’s up to state and federal lawmakers, as well as college officials, to create a better suite of support resources for individuals caught in that liminal space.

“One of the big challenges that lies ahead for us collectively is thinking about those students and how we get them the scaffolding they need to make sure they do indeed enroll in college,” he said. “That’s, of course, a heavier lift in some ways, because they’re not going to be in high school and they may be beyond the ready reach of current college access supports.”

Both Goebel and Gadkaree noted that some of the survey responses might have been impacted by this year’s FAFSA troubles. Major delays in access to the overhauled application—as well as in the release of aid packages—likely left students with fewer ways to assess whether cost would be a barrier.

If anything, experts say this year’s FAFSA fallout underscores the need to find new ways to re-engage with prospective bachelor’s degree students after high school and make their intentions a reality.

According to Art & Science, more than two in every three nonattendees have already taken key steps toward enrolling in a baccalaureate program, such as taking the ACT or visiting a college’s website for information. Often, final elements—such as filling out FAFSA, talking directly with an admissions officer or attending a college tour—are all students need as a last push to enroll.

But Elizabeth Morgan, ​​chief external relations officer for the National College Attainment Network, said the real challenge is figuring out how to stay connected with students who are on the fence once they graduate high school.

“Often, when you ask students in the spring if they’re going to college in the fall, they will tell you, ‘Yeah.’ But we know summer melt happens,” Morgan said. “Unless they applied previously, some of these students maybe got partway through the process … it’s hard to find these students.”

She added, “There’s a reason why we think continuous enrollment is so important. Because finding and helping students once they’ve missed their fall enrollment after high school graduation, it’s really hard.”

Goebell hopes the study will encourage higher ed officials to get creative and invest in new methods to stay in touch with prospective baccalaureates.

“Recognize that they’re in the funnel, they’re engaged,” he said. “Reach out to those community colleges around you, engage with them, spend time on their campus, speak to the students, help them understand the most direct path they can take to get back into a four-year program, and complete that four-year degree.”

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