Costs, emotional stress leading to college enrollment problems, study finds

Credit: Alison Yin for EdSource Today

Carpentry class at Laney College in Oakland in 2014.

Many adults in the United States who are not going to college are interested in enrolling, but the high cost of attendance prevents them from doing so. At the same time, a significant number of students currently enrolled in college have recently considered dropping out, overwhelmingly pointing to emotional stress as the reason.

Those are some of the key conclusions of a new study published Thursday by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation. From October to November 2021, Gallup surveyed more than 11,000 adults who were either college enrolled, previously enrolled in college, or prospective students to learn more about their higher education experiences.

The report comes as public colleges and universities across the country have experienced a significant drop in enrollment during the pandemic, which is especially the case at community colleges. California is no exception to that trend: The state’s system of 116 community colleges lost about 15% of its enrollment in the 2020-21 academic year. One of the state’s four-year university systems, California State University, saw a system-wide decline of just 1.7% in 2021, but 17 of the 23 campuses saw some declines.

“Enrollments have fallen alarmingly,” Courtney Brown, vice president of impact and planning for the Lumina Foundation, said in a statement. “To reverse this trend, we need to understand student perspectives, especially those of non-traditional old students. This includes what barriers they face and the practices that support them. This survey provides insights that can help us meet today’s students where they are.”

Among students who have dropped out of college or have never studied, cost is the main barrier, according to the survey. More than half of respondents who have never attended college – 54% of them – cited cost as a very important factor in their decision not to enroll. A similar proportion of students who dropped out also said cost was a very important reason, including 52% of students who dropped out during the pandemic.

The survey found that cost was a significant factor for students of all races, with at least 50% of students of all races reporting it as such.

“This research confirms that many people still view cost as the biggest barrier,” Stephanie Marken, Gallup’s executive director for education, said in a statement.

The California community college system offers the cheapest college tuition of any state nationally, and low-income students typically don’t have to pay tuition thanks to programs like the state’s California College Promise Grant. Tuition is higher at the state’s four-year universities, CSU, and the University of California, but because of the state’s generous Cal Grant financial aid awards, most local students of those systems also don’t pay tuition or fees.

What many California students have a hard time affording is the state’s high cost of living, especially housing, but also food and transportation.

It’s not clear how many students who participated in the Gallup survey are from California. Gallup surveyed 11,227 adults in the United States ages 18 to 59 for the study. The margin of error for results based on that sample was 1.4 percentage points. The population surveyed included 5,215 students at a university or community college; 3,010 former students who withdrew from university; and 3,002 adults who never enrolled in college.

Respondents were interviewed through an online portal, and according to the survey, the data was weighted to match national demographics by gender, age, race and region.

Cost isn’t the only factor stopping students from going to college, the study finds. About 38% of the non-enrolled respondents also mentioned family reasons, such as childcare responsibilities or adult caregivers.

And even with those barriers, most alumni have at least considered going back to college. A significant majority of students who dropped out during the pandemic – 85% – say they have considered going back to university. In addition, 56% who dropped out before the pandemic say they have considered re-enrolling in the past two years.

In California, state legislators and colleges have tried to re-engage former students and encourage them to return. Last year’s budget included $100 million for colleges to recruit students, which often involves staff calling former students directly and encouraging them to come back. This year’s budget is likely to include additional money for those purposes.

Another key to ensuring that college enrollment doesn’t drop further is making sure the students who are still enrolled don’t leave until they’re done. The Gallup survey found that staying enrolled in college was a struggle for many students. About 37% of students pursuing a bachelor’s or associate degree program indicate that it will be difficult or very difficult to remain enrolled in the 2021-2022 academic year. Similarly, 41% of college students pursuing an associate degree and about a third of undergraduate students pursuing a bachelor’s degree say they are considering retiring.

For students who considered quitting early, emotional stress was by far the most frequently cited reason, with 71% saying it was one of the main factors leading them to consider withdrawing. That’s a big jump from last year’s survey, when just 24% of college students pursuing an associate degree said emotional stress was a major reason for quitting, and 42% of college students enrolled in an undergraduate degree. this as a reason.

“While a growing crisis in mental health has challenged institutions prior to the pandemic, feelings of isolation and academic difficulties caused by the pandemic have exacerbated mental health problems nationally,” the report said. “…Students still struggle with their well-being and it poses a significant risk to their ability to complete their degree.”

EdSource receives funding from more than a dozen foundations, including the Lumina Foundation. Editorial decision-making and content remain under the exclusive control of EdSource.

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