New study explores why people drop out or don’t enroll


New research suggests that students are choosing to drop out of college and others are choosing not to enroll in the first place due to a range of ‘psychographies’ or psychological factors including doubts about performance financial support for a university education and an awareness of other professional training options outside of traditional study programs.

The study is based on responses from 11 focus groups and an online survey of 1,675 people between the ages of 18 and 30 who have decided not to go to college or who have quit a college program. The survey was conducted in March and April this year and was conducted by HCM Strategists, a public policy and advocacy consultancy, and Edge Research, a marketing research firm, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates.

Terrell Halaska Dunn, partner at HCM Strategies, said that although enrollment has fallen precipitously during the pandemic, particularly at community colleges, the declines have been happening for more than a decade, and the purpose of the study is to d explore why.

“We really wanted to try to understand what’s driving these enrollment drops,” she said. “What drives people to choose something other than university? We argued, based on data, that higher education offers the best opportunity for social and economic mobility, that a university degree really represents the best long-term value for people. So why are these arguments not convincing to a growing part of the population?

The study found that 46% of survey respondents planned to go or return to college, while 41% felt unsure and 13% did not plan to enroll at all. Of those planning to go to college, 15% plan to enroll within the next six months, 31% within six months to a year, and 37% within one to three years.

People had a variety of reasons for not attending or completing college, including but not limited to financial barriers. The study found that 38% of students didn’t enroll for fear of the cost of college and accumulating debt, 27% felt college would be ‘too stressful’ or ‘too much pressure’ , 26% thought it was more important to work. and earn money, and 25% felt uncertain about their career trajectory and what they wanted to study.

Adam Burns, COO of Edge Research, said the group interviewed was far from a “monolith”. Affordability of college was a top concern among those not enrolling in college, but psychological barriers also played a role in their decision-making, including “current life satisfaction…or challenges associated with stress or simply the ability to perform tasks at university.

“It became very clear to us that focusing only on reducing financial burdens would not solve the problem of this estrangement from post-secondary education,” he said.

He also noted that while many campus leaders fear a demographic cliff, a decline in the number of traditional college-aged students, demographics are “important and relevant,” but not the sole reason for declining enrollment. These psychological factors that deter people from attending college are another important piece of the picture and can help determine what students need to enroll and stay enrolled.

The study explores supports for students that respondents believe could help them. Some of the top picks included a free personal finance course, more flexible programs, financial aid advice, and employment advice.

According to the study, respondents also took advantage of alternative modes of education outside of obtaining a degree and saw value in them. Almost half of the group, 47%, said they had taken or were currently taking courses on YouTube. About a quarter of respondents had taken courses to obtain a license and 22% had taken courses to obtain a verified certificate.

The majority of respondents, 70%, agreed that on-the-job training was the best way to advance in a career. While 35% considered a four-year degree to be of “excellent value”, the same percentage of respondents considered bachelor’s degree courses to be of excellent value. Only 28% described a two-year degree as being of excellent value, while 34% saw courses towards a verified certificate and 33% saw courses towards professional certification as having high returns.

A higher percentage of respondents agreed that they needed a certification proving their skills rather than a degree to get a good job, 68% and 57% respectively.

“The education market has changed significantly and fundamentally,” Burns said. “As we all know, there are more education options available to people than ever before, and this audience is absolutely taking advantage of those multiple avenues.”

The study ultimately divides survey respondents into four categories based on their motivations for not attending college, their plans for the future, and the types of support they might need. He determined that 35% of prospective students question the returns to a college degree and would appreciate supports that guide them on how to get the most out of a program. Some 29% are satisfied with their current situation and worry about the opportunity cost of going to university. Meanwhile, 18% are discouraged by anxieties and would benefit from a wide range of supports, and 19% do not see college as the right option for them.

Burns noted that this means some of the traditional email marketing colleges used don’t work as well for these students.

They focus “on value, investment, opportunity cost,” he said. So, messaging about colleges as “a place to go to find yourself, find your passion, misses the mark for many in this audience.”

Martin Van Der Werf, director of editorial and educational policy at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said most prospective students probably view college that way.

A key finding of the study is that higher education institutions need to do a better job of communicating to future students that “the skills they learn will transfer to the workforce” and “we let’s build towards something bigger.

“You have to remember that 80% of people who get post-secondary education or training don’t go to an elite college,” he added. “They are much more interested in translating from university to employment. And part of that is that they just don’t have the time or the money to explore. For them, it’s really about “How soon can I turn this into something that will allow me to live a better life?”


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