Report: Inflation and emotional stress cited among students as barriers to college enrollment
A new Lumina-Gallup report on the state of higher education finds more students considered withdrawing from college studies in 2022 compared with the year prior, due to such factors as emotional stress, mental health, cost and inflation.
Among students pursuing a certificate's, associate's or bachelor's degree in 2022, 41% said they considered "stopping out," or withdrawing, from their studies in the past six months, compared with 38% in 2021.
But the report also suggests that despite significant enrollment declines during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of adults in the U.S. still see the value of higher education.
About three-quarters of the survey respondents said they believe a two- to four-year degree is "equally or more important in securing a successful career than it was 20 years ago."
This is the third consecutive year that Gallup, a research organization known for public opinion polls, and The Lumina Foundation, a private organization focused on improving higher education, have jointly conducted the survey of adults ages 18 to 59.
Courtney Brown, vice president of strategic impact and planning at Lumina, says the effort was launched in the height of the pandemic, when college enrollment numbers were precipitously dropping.
"Everyone was guessing, what's going to happen with higher education and what are students going to do," Brown said. "Nobody knew. So we said, let's actually ask people what they're going to do."
The poll indicates that in 2022, demand for higher education remained high. Forty-seven percent of U.S. adults who were not enrolled in a college program that year said that they had considered enrolling in a bachelor's, associate's or certificate program in the last two years. That figure is slightly up from 44% in 2021.
But 2022 survey participants said cost was a major barrier to enrollment. Fifty-five percent of adults said the high price of tuition and fees was the top reason, followed closely behind by budget strains from inflation.
On the flip side, a majority of survey participants who were enrolled in college in 2022 (58%) said that their financial aid package, or tuition assistance, was a "very important" factor in helping them they stay enrolled.
Brown said many prospective students may not understand that with tuition assistance, "the real dollars they need to spend are much less than what the sticker price says."
While financial aid and scholarships were cited as the most helpful factors for unenrolled students to consider attending college, respondents also ranked highly student loan forgiveness programs and emergency aid grants for unexpected financial crises. They also said programs such as reduced-cost meal plans, affordable student housing and free or reduced child care would help them pull the trigger to enroll in college courses.
Those findings resonate with Nate Bryant, the vice president for student success at Salem State University, a public university in Massachusetts. For enrolled students, he said, financial strain comes from many factors beyond just tuition and fees.
"It's for food or shelter, or car problems or day care," Bryant said. "And we're not talking hundreds of thousands of dollars. Sometimes five hundred dollars can make a difference for a student to persist from one year to the next."
For the last few years, Salem State has awarded completion and persistence micro-grants of up to $6,500 to students at high risk of dropping out. According to Bryant, about 95% of grant awardees end up continuing their studies or graduating.
Outside of college costs, emotional stress was also cited as a limiting factor in college enrollment. About 30% of adults in the study said personal mental health was a big reason they weren't currently enrolled in college. For those already enrolled in higher education, about 55% of students said they considered leaving their program due to emotional stress.
"I think that's an intersection of many things," Brown said. "(They are) worried about finances, worried about health, worried about school."
Brown added that she hopes this data can be helpful to policy-makers and higher education leaders as they try to recover from pandemic-era enrollment declines.
In Massachusetts, the rate of immediate college attendance among high school graduates dipped from 72% in spring 2020 to just under 63% by spring 2022.