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A student leaving a classroom.

Higher education experts have been concerned about an “exodus” from higher education since long before pandemic-exacerbated enrollment declines.

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Enrollment has been declining in higher education for more than a decade, and the most common explanations in recent years have been lingering effects of the pandemic and a looming demographic cliff expected to shrink the number of traditional-aged college students. But new research suggests that public doubts about the value of a college degree are a key contributor.

The study—conducted by Edge Research, a marketing research firm, and HCM Strategists, a public policy and advocacy consulting firm with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—uses focus groups and parallel national surveys of current high school students and of adults who decided to leave college or who didn’t go at all to link the value proposition of a college degree and Americans’ behaviors after high school.

“At the end of the day, higher education has a lot of work to do to convince these audiences of its value,” said Terrell Dunn, an HCM consultant.

But college leaders shouldn’t be without hope, she added: While Americans are skeptical, they’re persuadable.

“[Potential students] are pretty rational in weighing their opportunity costs,” Dunn said. “They’re saying, ‘I can pursue shorter and cheaper options, and still get a good job.’ So higher ed has to figure out how to explain why what they’re offering is better.”

Benefits Remain, Confidence Declines

The new report, based on data collected in 2023, builds on the findings of a similar report released the year before. The most significant addition to the latest study was a survey of about 1,700 high school juniors and seniors, which provided first-time insights into the thoughts of traditional-aged college students. The survey also included more than 3,100 nonenrolled adults ages 18 to 30.

The majority of respondents from both age groups still see the benefits of gaining a two- or four-year college degree. At least two-thirds of respondents characterized the ability to make more money, get a better job, train for a specific career or have increased job security as “somewhat or very important” reasons to get a degree.

But when compared to results from last year, the rates of perceived importance went down across the board—some by as much as six percentage points. Nonenrolled adults were generally about 10 percentage points less likely to have confidence in the benefits of a college degree than high schoolers were.

Just as confidence in the value of two- and four-year degrees dipped, the perceived value of on-the-job training as well as shorter-term licensure or certificate programs rose. While 58 percent of high schoolers and 51 percent of nonenrolled adults in 2023 believed you must have a college degree to earn a “good job,” 69 percent and 65 percent, respectively, believed a certification was enough.

Public belief in the power of a certification outweighed that of a college degree in 2022 as well, but the gap between the two grew from 9 percentage points in 2022 to 14 percentage points in the new survey.

Consistent Concerns

The biggest concerns that seem to be holding potential students back include the fear of taking on debt, a general lack of interest in schooling, insufficient return on investment, overall stress levels and an uncertainty about the future.

Adam Burns, a principal at Edge Research, said that although the core concerns remain the same regardless of age, they play out differently for high schoolers than for adult nonenrollees.

High schoolers feel most prepared in the “precollege phase,” when they first start to explore the possibility of college and submit applications. He attributes much of this to the cultural norm that college is the next step after high school for many—and the support they have from school counselors. But when it comes to actually paying for and attending college, that’s when students tend to lose confidence and fall off track.

“They are right in the middle of that orbit of college information,” Burns said. “But they're very uncertain that they’re going to be making the right choice … They really are having a difficult time understanding the finances behind that college decision.”

Nonenrollees, on the other hand, don’t have college counselors (or helicopter parents) sharing information with them about their college options and have to weigh their college-going uncertainties alongside other factors.

“They have the greater opportunity cost of taking this step, especially if they currently have a job or other family obligations, making that choice is a bit more perilous.”

Solutions Lie in Changing the Narrative

Patrick Methvin, director of postsecondary success at the Gates Foundation, noted that higher education experts may know empirically that college degrees often contribute to socioeconomic mobility. “But unfortunately, students aren’t getting their information from the same economists we’re listening to,” Methvin said.

High school students’ top two sources of information about college were school counselors and parents, and therefore the things they heard about college are mainly positive. Adults listed Google searches and social media as their top guides, leading to a widely negative perception.

“What they are hearing is things like the Supreme Court decision on race conscious admissions and DEI attacks, deliberation on test optional and legacy admissions, and … crippling student loan debt,” he added. “Those things add up to questions, candidly, from Americans about their faith in higher education.”

The survey data showed that the narrative prospective students hear can greatly influence their likelihood to pursue a college degree, so the researchers suggest it’s time for colleges to step up and give students access to quality advising, rather than social media threads, to base their decisions on.

Four of the report’s top six suggestions for colleges moving forward involved giving prospective and current students expert advising in academic, financial and postgraduate career success. The other two included eliminating the accrual of student debt for anyone attending community college programs and providing more dual-enrollment opportunities to help students save time and money.

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