Degrees Still Hold the Key for a Better Future

Post-secondary adults still see higher education as a critical component of finding a fulfilling job and a higher paying career, despite the disruptions and challenges of pandemic life.

Quantitative research into student motivation and behavior during the pandemic and how it impacted learning is now filling in some of the anecdotal observations made during the last two years. A key driver of the survey behind a new Gallup-Lumina report, was to better understand how colleges and universities need to adapt to attract more students in an environment of declining enrollments.

The report details the responses of 11,227 current college students, pre-COVID students who are no longer enrolled, students enrolled during COVID but no longer enrolled, and prospective students, ages 18–59. Gallup and Lumina asked students about the ongoing risks of staying enrolled and the programs that allowed them to continue.

Key insights include:

  • Three-fourths of students in bachelor programs and two-thirds of adults seeking associate degrees have considered taking a break from college due to emotional stress.
  • Thirty-six percent of students in bachelor’s programs and 40 percent of students in associate degree programs reported that it was “difficult” or “very difficult” to stay enrolled during the 2021-2022 school year. Students of color were most likely to report challenges.
  • Mental health was cited twice as often as the pandemic, the cost of college, or the difficulty of coursework as the reason students had considered “stopping out.”
  • Those who remained in associate and bachelor’s degree programs stated that the financial aid they received and their confidence in the value of the education were “very important” reasons for staying in school. Six in 10 students said that a college degree would allow them to pursue a fulfilling job and higher-paying work.
  • Less expensive certification programs are of interest with 85 percent of those students who stepped out during the pandemic considering re-enrollment.
  • More than half of students—59 percent who stepped out prior to COVID and during the pandemic (52 percent)—say cost is a very important reason they remain unenrolled. For those who have never enrolled, 54 percent cite cost as a very important barrier.
  • Tuition and other expenses remain the chief barriers for adults considering higher education. Respondents consistently reported college expenses as a “very important” reason they stopped out or never enrolled in higher education. This held true for all adults regardless of race, ethnicity, or income level.

“This research confirms many people still view cost as the greatest barrier,” said Stephanie Marken, Gallup executive director for education. “Yet, more students need to benefit from the social mobility possible with a college degree or other credential.”

The more information that higher education leaders can gather about student motivation and obstacles to college degrees and certifications, the better they will be able to attract students from non-traditional backgrounds and non-traditional age groups. Despite the challenges and barriers, including cost and emotional stress, students still believe that some form of higher education will help them achieve their goals for a fulfilling career and higher pay.