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Student survey data shows the cost of college can be a barrier to learners’ completion, graduation and overall student success.

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Across the U.S., there are over 40.4 million people who have completed some college but have not earned a credential.

A new study from student loan provider Sallie Mae, “How America Completes College 2024,” conducted by Ipsos, finds a quarter of current college students are at risk of stopping out or being dismissed from their institution, and the primary concern is the cost of tuition.

First-generation students were more likely than their continuing-generation peers to consider leaving their program or were at risk of dismissal, indicating a need for greater supports for this group, as well.


The report draws on data from two groups: 1,029 undergraduate students, ages 18 to 30, in a two- or four-year college program, and 427 young adults of the same ages who started a two- or four-year program but stopped out before completing.

The survey was distributed June 2023.

Risk factors: About two-thirds of students said they’d never considered leaving school, compared to a quarter who seriously thought about it or are at risk of dismissal. An additional 12 percent considered leaving, but not too seriously.

First-generation students were more likely to say they have considered leaving college or face a dismissal risk (41 percent) compared to their continuing-generation peers (18 percent). Students from low-income families, similarly, had higher risk factors (33 percent) compared to those from middle- or high-income backgrounds (18 and 16 percent, respectively).

Students at community colleges also had a higher risk of stopping out or being dismissed from their institution (37 percent).

The No. 1 reason students have thought about leaving school is due to financial challenges (30 percent), followed by motivation or life changes (24 percent) and mental health challenges (18 percent).

This is on-par with national data from Gallup and the Lumina Foundation, which identified emotional stress (54 percent), mental health reasons (43 percent) and the cost of a degree (31 percent) as the top factors in students having considered leaving their programs.

Some of the financial challenges these students have include meeting the cost of tuition (53 percent) and the cost of additional expenses including books, living costs and food (50 percent).

On-track trends: Around two-thirds (64 percent) of Sallie Mae’s survey respondents had never considered leaving school. Among these students who are on-track to graduate:

  • 97 percent committed to attending college while in high school
  • 90 percent of students started college immediately after high school
  • 73 percent started with an idea of the exact career or major they wanted to pursue
  • 88 percent believe attending college will help them obtain their dream job
  • 68 percent discussed scholarships with their family
  • 56 percent discussed how much college was going to cost prior to enrolling with their family
  • 69 percent say living away from home is easy
  • 59 percent say living with roommates is easy
  • 52 percent say meeting new people and making friends is easy for them

First-gen needs: First-generation students were disproportionately represented in students who had considered leaving college, with over half (52 percent) considering leaving at some point and 41 percent seriously considering stopping out.

Six in 10 first-generation students said external factors played a role in their decision to continue college. One-quarter (24 percent) cited wanting to earn a degree to support their family, 21 percent felt an expectation from their family to attend college and 19 percent wanted to be the first in their family to attend college.

In addition, first-generation students were more likely to say prioritizing mental health (58 percent) and living away from home (25 percent) were difficult, compared to their peers (44 percent and 11 percent, respectively).

Identifying stop outs: The survey also collected perspectives of young adults (those under 30) who had decided to leave college without earning a credential or degree.

Of students who had stopped out of college, 48 percent said financial challenges played a role in their decision to leave school, followed by motivation or life changes (42 percent). Academic challenges (26 percent), social or school life (25 percent) and mental health challenges (22 percent) were less common reasons learners left college.

Students who left due to financial concerns were more likely to say it was easy to manage the social (72 percent) and academic (73 percent) elements of college compared to all stopped out learners (58 percent and 55 percent, respectively).

A Comeback Story

A February report from California Competes identifies four areas colleges and university leaders can help stopped out learners enroll and complete their college degrees.

Read more here.

Three in 10 stopped-out learners reported they have plans to go back to higher education within the next year and 14 percent have concrete plans to return within the next five years.

What helps: Stopped-out students said additional financial resources (41 percent) would have helped them stay in college, as well as more flexible class schedules (20 percent) and additional mental health resources (20 percent).

Students also requested online and hybrid class options (19 percent), additional employment resources (18 percent) and more opportunities to meet friends and get involved in social organizations (18 percent).

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