Why don’t people go to college?

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Why aren’t more people enrolling in college? Why do many of those who enroll drop out before completing their degree? And what can be done to get them back?

Those questions became even more pressing in recent years as enrollment declined across the country — prompting a long nationwide push to increase student access to college.

And there are no easy answers, according to a study of 18- to 30-year-olds without a college degree which was released on Wednesday. The research, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, describes a complex group of students who have walked away from college doors.

Researchers offered four main insights for higher education:

  • Who goes to college isn’t just a demographic issue: Instead, characteristics such as whether someone is satisfied with their life, whether they have a parent with a college degree, and whether they have previously taken college classes make them more likely to attend in the future.
  • The education market is fundamentally different today than it has been in the past: Prospective students have more educational options than ever before, and they make decisions based on a path’s value, trade-offs and necessary investments. College’s traditional value proposition as a place to explore and find a passion doesn’t cut it in many cases.
  • The language of higher education misses the mark, and so are educational pathways: Prospective students do not understand the meaning of the phrase “postsecondary education,” which policymakers and others in education often use to refer to options after high school. They also feel that high school should have done more to prepare them for the world and for a future that may not include a college education.
  • Students are willing to pay for college if they know the returns will follow: Many prospective students are receptive to financial aid, tools to help them manage stress, guidance to help them take the right courses, and help to land a good job when they graduate.

The results may affect higher education and secondary schools. They could also have significant implications for the work of the Gates Foundation, which has long focused on increasing the number of people with some degree of education after high school, said Patrick Methvin, director of postsecondary success at the Gates Foundation.

“These are important and frankly sobering for us,” Methvin said during a Wednesday video call to discuss the findings with reporters. “We’ve been focused on trying to broaden the path to and through post-secondary education for over a decade now.”

Two companies, Edge Research and HCM Strategists, studied the issue for the Gates Foundation. They looked at high school graduates between the ages of 18 and 30 who chose not to attend college or dropped out of a program. They held 11 focus groups and conducted a survey of 1,675 people in March and April.

Below are some of their other top picks.

Money is important to students, but so is stress and uncertainty

Researchers asked participants why they chose not to go to college or finish a degree. Two of their top four answers were about money.

More than a third of respondents, 38%, said they didn’t want to take on debt or that college was too expensive. And 26% said getting a job and earning money was more important to them.

Meanwhile, 27% said college was too stressful or too much pressure, and 25% said they were unsure about their majors or future careers.

When asked why they can get a degree, respondents overwhelmingly focused on career outcomes.

Three-quarters said earning more money was either a very important or extremely important reason for getting a degree. Similar proportions cited getting a better job or getting training for a specific career. On the other hand, only 52% indicated a traditional reason for attending higher education: to become more cultured.

YouTube can be a great college option

The researchers asked whether respondents were interested in a variety of educational options and whether they had experience with them. The video platform YouTube proved to be a main source of information.

Almost half of the respondents said they had taken courses on YouTube. A fifth said they had experience with online learning there, and 27% said they were learning on the platform at the time of the survey.

These numbers surpassed other educational options. The next closest answer was taking a course to get a license – 16% of respondents said they had taken such a course and 9% said they did.

Another 21% of respondents planned to learn on YouTube. But more referenced plans for other roads.

About 39% of respondents said they planned to take a course to obtain a license, and 40% said they planned to take a course for a verified certificate. These percentages match the percentage of respondents who said they planned to enroll in a two-year or four-year college.

“Options that are tied to specific skills or jobs people felt very positively and strongly about,” said Terrell Halaska Dunn, partner at HCM Strategists.

Getting a college degree was a low priority in the immediate future

Respondents prioritized their own emotional, mental and financial health more often than a college education.

Researchers asked them about their personal goals for the next few years. Almost nine in ten respondents, 87%, said that good mental and emotional health was either important or a top priority, making it the most popular answer. A close second was financial stability, cited by 85%, and in third place was making more money, at 80%.

Continuing to learn and grow personally was also a goal for 80% of respondents. But that didn’t necessarily mean getting a college degree. Just 48% of respondents said getting a college degree was important or a top priority in the next few years.

Another question showed that 46% of respondents definitely planned to attend college, while about 42% were not willing to commit.

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