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Students Continue to Weigh College Costs vs. Career Goals

Students Continue to Weigh College Costs vs. Career Goals

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Student retention is critical to postsecondary schools' ability to educate students and remain financially viable. It was a crucial issue before the coronavirus pandemic, and it became even more so in the fall of 2020, given declining enrollment rates at many colleges nationally. Understanding why students drop out is a key to identifying the policies and programming that will help students persist and complete their degrees.

A recent study conducted by Lumina Foundation and Gallup explored the barriers to completion for U.S. adults who obtained some college education but did not complete their degrees. These adults cited the cost (25%), emotional stress (18%) and balancing family responsibilities (13%) as their top reasons for not completing their degree.

Reasons for Dropping Out of Postsecondary Program
Which of the following describe why you are not currently pursuing a degree/credential? Select all that apply.
Unenrolled adults with some postsecondary education
Cost of attendance 25
Emotional stress 18
Childcare responsibilities 13
You got a new job 11
Health-related reasons 10
You did not believe the degree/credentialwould help you achieve your personal goals 10
COVID-19/Coronavirus 9
You did not believe the degree/credentialwould help you achieve your career goals 8
The courses you took were notrelevant to your future career 7
Care for a family member or friend 7
Completing the degree/credentialwas taking longer than you expected 6
You lost your job 5
The coursework was too difficult 5
The education you were receiving was low quality 3

These results are from the Lumina-Gallup Student Study, conducted Sept. 22-Oct. 5, 2020, with 2,000 U.S. adults, aged 18 and older, who are not currently enrolled in school but have some college education and no degree. Surveys were conducted using an opt-in panel, and the sample was weighted to represent the national population of those with some college but no degree.

In addition to cost, stress and childcare, there are several other common reasons for "stopping out" of school, that is, withdrawing from classes, including getting a new job (11%), health reasons (10%) and lack of connection between the degree and personal goals (10%). Very few mentioned the difficulty of getting a degree (5%) or lack of quality of the education received so far (3%).

Additionally, fewer than one in 10 cite COVID-19 as a reason, a clear reflection of the relatively small proportion of respondents who left school in the past year; in fact, 78% have been out for five years or more.

The reasons for dropping out of college vary based on some demographic characteristics:

  • Parents' top reasons for withdrawing are childcare responsibilities (47%) and cost (30%).

  • Women are four times as likely as men to cite childcare, 21% vs. 5%.

  • 28% of those who are caregivers for an adult say that care is the reason.

  • 31% of those with annual household incomes under $48,000 attribute their decision to stop courses to the cost.

  • Those who were enrolled within the past five years name emotional stress (35%) and cost (30%) as their top reasons.

  • 35% of those who say they lost income during the coronavirus pandemic choose cost, more than any other reason, and 13% cite COVID-19.

Reasons for Choosing a Degree Program

Asked why they initially chose to pursue a particular degree, those stopping out of school were most likely to say their degree choice was made for career or work-related considerations. The most common reason given was "to obtain knowledge or skills" (47%), followed by the belief that the degree would help in getting "a higher-paying job" (41%) and "pursue a more fulfilling career" (39%).

Unenrolled Adults' Reasons for Getting Degree
Which of the following comes closest to why you chose to get your degree? Select all that apply.
Not enrolled
To obtain knowledge or skills 47
It would help get higher-paying job 41
It would help in pursuing more fulfilling career 39
Become more competitive job candidate 32
Family or society's expectations 18
It would help get salary increase in current job 16
Opportunity to advance in current job 14
Unable to find good job without degree/credential 7
Employer was helping pay for degree/credential 5
You had recently lost your job 2

In addition to former students, Gallup interviewed more than 6,000 currently enrolled students who are pursuing a degree or professional credential. This group also cites job-related motivations as the main reasons for enrolling, but their motivations differ from those who have left school in two ways:

  • 49% of enrolled students vs. 39% of those who left school say they embarked on their education because they thought it would allow them to pursue a more fulfilling career.

  • 27% of enrolled students vs. 16% of unenrolled adults cite getting a salary increase in their current job as a reason.

These patterns reinforce the concept that career aspirations serve as an important source of motivation toward program completion.

Reasons for Choosing a School

Students' motivations for choosing their particular school may also affect their likelihood of completion. A 53% majority of those who stopped before receiving a degree say being close to home was a reason they chose their institution, and 42% say it was the cost.

Unenrolled Adults' Reasons for Choosing School
Which of the following describe the main reason(s) you chose to enroll at the institution you did? Select up to three reasons.
Not enrolled
Close to home 53
Cost 42
Financial aid package 22
Flexible course schedule 19
School/University offered specific program of interest 18
School's reputation 16
Close to work 9
Ability to complete courses online 8
School gave course credits for prior learning at another school or work 8
Amount of time it takes to complete degree/credential 6
Support services the school offers 4

While enrolled students express many of the same reasons for choosing their school, there are two noteworthy differences between them and unenrolled students:

  • Proximity to the school makes less of a difference to those currently enrolled (41%)

  • Those currently enrolled were more likely than those who are not enrolled to select the school's reputation (25% vs. 16%).


Higher education institutions were already struggling to retain students prior to the coronavirus pandemic, but COVID-19 presented significant challenges in the fall of 2020 when enrollment declined further. College students and their families faced a faltering economy, and at the same time, students' perceptions of quality suffered as programs designed to be fully-in person were forced to become fully-remote.

Colleges and universities are trying to retain every student. In response to these challenges, many of them are experimenting by piloting new programs and policies designed to improve student retention.

Despite all the new challenges these schools have faced this academic year, cost remains the top issue keeping students from completing their educational experience and realizing the benefits of a college degree.

Historically, student enrollment has increased during challenging economic times when there is less competition from the job market and the appetite for acquiring a competitive edge (in the form of a college degree) may be greater. Unfortunately, students who stop their education before receiving a degree are worse off than those who never began as they often have debt and no degree to show for it.

As the study shows, many challenges factor into students' decision to step away from college. Cost is a key one, but caretaker demands are another, as is the emotional stress that may come from juggling too many responsibilities and the perceived value of the education. Colleges will need to address all of these if declining enrollment is to be addressed in a meaningful way.

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