Why aren’t people going to college?

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Why aren’t more people enrolling in college? Why are many of those who do enroll leaving before they complete their degrees? And what can be done to get them back?

Those questions grew even more pressing in the last few years as enrollment fell across the country — flying in the face of a long nationwide push to increase students’ access to college.

And there are no easy answers, according to a study of 18- to 30-year-olds without college degrees that was released Wednesday. The research, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, describes a complex group of students who’ve walked away from colleges’ doors.

Researchers offered four main insights for higher education:

  • Who attends college isn’t just a demographic question: Instead, traits like whether someone is satisfied with their life, whether they have a parent with a college degree, and whether they’ve previously taken college classes make them more likely to attend in the future.
  • The education marketplace is fundamentally different today than it has been in the past: Prospective students have more educational options than ever before, and they make decisions based on a pathway’s value, tradeoffs and required investment. College’s traditional value proposition as a place to explore and find a passion isn’t cutting it in many cases.
  • Higher education’s language is missing the mark, and so are educational pathways: Prospective students don’t understand the meaning of the phrase “postsecondary education,” which policymakers and others in education often use to refer to options after high school. They also think high school should have done more to get them ready for the world, and for a future that might not include a college education.
  • Students are willing to pay for college if they know returns will follow: Many prospective students are receptive to financial support, tools to help them manage stress, guidance to help them take the right courses, and help getting a good job when they graduate.

The findings could influence higher ed and high schools. They could also have significant ramifications for the Gates Foundation’s work, which has long focused on increasing the number of people with some level of education past high school, said Patrick Methvin, director of postsecondary success at the Gates Foundation.

“These are important, and frankly, sobering for us,” Methvin said during a Wednesday video call to discuss the findings with reporters. “We’ve been focusing on trying to widen the path to and through education after high school for over a decade now.”

Two firms, Edge Research and HCM Strategists, studied the issue for the Gates Foundation. They looked at high school graduates between the ages of 18 and 30 who opted against going to college or stopped out of a program. They held 11 focus groups and conducted a survey of 1,675 people in March and April.

Below are some of their other top findings.

Money matters to students, but so too do stress and uncertainty

Researchers asked participants why they chose not to go to college or finish a degree. Two of their top four responses related to money.

More than one-third of respondents, 38%, said they didn’t want to take on debt or that college was too expensive. And 26% said it was more important for them to get a job and make money.

Meanwhile, 27% said college was too stressful or too much pressure, and 25% said they were unsure about their majors or future careers.

Asked why they might get a degree, respondents overwhelmingly focused on career outcomes.

Three-quarters said earning more money was either a very important or extremely important reason to get a degree. Similar shares cited getting a better job or receiving training for a specific career. On the other hand, only 52% cited a traditional reason for attending higher ed: becoming more cultured.

YouTube might be a big college alternative

Researchers asked whether respondents were interested in a variety of educational options and whether they had experience with them. The video platform YouTube proved to be a prime source of information.

Almost half of respondents said they’d taken classes on YouTube. One-fifth said they had experience with online learning there, and 27% said they were learning on the platform at the time of the survey. 

Those numbers outpaced other educational options. The next closest response was taking a course to receive a license — 16% of respondents said they’d taken such a course, and 9% said they were doing so.

Another 21% of respondents planned to learn on YouTube. But more referenced plans for other pathways.

About 39% of respondents said they planned to take a course to receive a license, and 40% said they planned to take a course for a verified certificate. Those percentages match the share of respondents who said they planned to enroll in a two-year or four-year college.

“Options that are tied to specific skills or jobs, people felt very positively and strongly about,” said Terrell Halaska Dunn, partner at HCM Strategists.

Earning a college degree was a low priority in the near future

Respondents prioritized their own emotional, mental and financial health more frequently than a college education. 

Researchers asked them about their personal goals over the next few years. Almost nine in 10 respondents, 87%, said good mental and emotional health was either important or their top priority, making it the most popular answer. A close second was financial stability, cited by 85%, and in third place was earning more money, at 80%.

Continuing to learn and grow personally was a goal for 80% of respondents as well. But that didn’t necessarily translate to earning a college degree. Just 48% of respondents said getting a college degree was important or a top priority in the next few years.

Another question showed 46% of respondents definitely planned to go to college, while about 42% weren’t willing to commit.

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