Despite declining enrollment at many U.S. higher ed institutions, nearly three-fourths of all adults say a college degree is as important as (35 percent) or more important (39 percent) than it was 20 years ago, according to a new report from Gallup and the Lumina Foundation. Twenty-six percent said they thought it was less important.
“The State of Higher Education 2023” is the third consecutive study by the two organizations, which surveyed U.S. adults between 18 and 59. Respondents included about 6,000 students currently enrolled in a postsecondary education program, 3,000 adults who started but stopped out, and another 3,000 who have never enrolled in higher education.
Among students currently attending a postsecondary program, 41 percent said it was “difficult” or “very difficult” to remain enrolled, similar to the 39 percent who answered that way in 2021. White students found it easier to stay enrolled than Black students and Hispanic students, who struggled the most; 50 percent reported challenges.
Black and Hispanic students were also more likely than whites to say they’d considered stopping out in the past six months, and the gap is growing. Thirty-six percent of white students said they’d thought about withdrawing—up from 33 percent in 2020—compared to 43 percent of Black students (up from 34 percent in 2020) and 52 percent of Hispanic students (up from 42 percent two years ago).
Among U.S. adults not currently enrolled, 47 percent—including 61 percent of those who have stopped out and 36 percent of those who have never enrolled— said they have considered attending some sort of postsecondary program, up from 44 percent in 2021.
The most important reasons they cited for considering enrolling were “to obtain knowledge or skills” (64 percent), “personal fulfillment or achievement” (57 percent), and to get “a higher-paying job” (56 percent).
Respondents most frequently blamed financial barriers for standing in their way, with 55 percent citing the cost of programs, 45 percent naming inflation and 38 percent reporting the need to work. Additionally, 30 percent cited emotional stress and 28 percent said personal mental health reasons kept them from enrolling.
Sixty percent of respondents said they would find scholarships, grants and fellowship “very helpful” in making college affordable, while 54 percent cited student loan forgiveness programs, 47 percent said emergency aid would help them endure unexpected financial crises and 40 percent used federal student loans.
“Over 40 million people in the United States started college and for whatever reason stopped out before completing a credential,” said Lumina Foundation vice president Courtney Brown. “These data provide a solution to bring back these students who are crippled by debt and get them to completion so they can have better jobs and better lives.”