The numbers are staggering. Enrollment in colleges and universities fell by 938,000 students over the past two years. This enrollment plunge was largely due to people who decided college wasn’t worth it. Right?

Wrong. A new study by Gallup and Lumina Foundation shows high demand and interest in higher education—even in the wake of COVID-19 losses and disruptions.

The report surveyed current students, students who stopped out of school before or during the past two years, and those who never enrolled. Here’s what we learned—and what resources students need to keep learning and earning.

The unenrolled: students want to return

There is high demand and interest in higher education – even in the wake of COVID-19 losses and disruptions. About 85 percent of those who stopped out amid the pandemic are interested in returning to school. Over half, 56 percent, of those who were enrolled before the pandemic are considering returning and 40 percent of people surveyed who never enrolled in a postsecondary program are considering enrolling, with most interested in an associate degree or certificate. Black and multiracial adults are most likely to consider enrolling in a degree or certificate program (51 percent), followed by Native Americans (45 percent) and Hispanic and Latino people (44 percent).

Clearly, people see the value in education beyond high school. Over 60 percent of all respondents (enrolled, enrolled before or during COVID, and never enrolled) who are either continuing their education or considering enrolling said they are doing so to gain valuable skills and knowledge. Over 50 percent say further education will help them pursue a more fulfilling career, and similar percentages say it will help them get a higher-paying job.

Nearly all, or 94 percent, of those currently enrolled say at least one credential beyond high school is important for their ideal job. About 80 percent of those who never enrolled but are considering college say the same thing. And over half (51 percent) of those who never enrolled and are not considering it right now also believe a credential is important. Very few—only 16 percent of those who were enrolled before or during COVID and 20 percent who have never enrolled—say they see no value in further education beyond high school.

For adults who are considering enrolling or re-enrolling, what holds them back? If you guessed money, you’re right. Cost is the top factor cited by people not currently enrolled (59 percent of those enrolled before COVID, 52 percent who were enrolled during the pandemic, and 54 percent of those who never enrolled). One-third of respondents said family responsibilities kept them from enrolling and just under a quarter cite work conflicts. People who never enrolled have slightly higher concerns about getting COVID or getting the vaccine.

The enrolled: overwhelming stress

We must also pay close attention to helping enrolled students stay in school. Over a third of enrolled students say it has been difficult or very difficult to stay in school—and this is especially true for students of color. About that same percentage considered stopping out. This is the same percentage as in 2020 in the first year of COVID before vaccines. But today, the number one reason is stress. Stress has increased dramatically over the past two years for college students and increased by over 34 percent in just the past year. An overwhelming 76 percent of bachelor’s students and 63 percent of associate students cite stress as the main reason they may stop out. Students are twice as likely to cite stress over other concerns, including COVID-19 (33 percent), costs (36 percent/31 percent), or difficult coursework (34 percent/24 percent).

What keeps students in school? Degree pursuers mention their financial aid (52 percent/48 percent), their confidence in the value of their degree (48 percent/49 percent), and enjoyment of their programs (45 percent/45 percent) as their top reasons.

It’s time to act

This study clearly shows that most Americans value higher education as an important step in finding an ideal job and building a brighter future. To make that a reality not just for current students or the 938,000 students lost since 2019, but also for millions of people who never considered enrolling, we must accelerate change and focus on student needs. Educators, policymakers, and community leaders must prioritize these resources:

  • Financial aid. We must find ways to make college affordable and better communicate financial aid packages to students, because financial aid is the number one reason they enroll or stay in school.
  • Mental health counseling. We must provide mental health resources to all students, not just those few who are lucky enough to get a timely appointment. With suicide now the second-leading cause of death for people as young as 10 to age 24, it’s urgent we prioritize students’ emotional health.
  • Whole student support. Today’s students face family and work obligations that often make higher education difficult to impossible. To help them, schools must invest in ways to support the whole student with help ranging from childcare and food banks to virtual advising and emergency aid.

Time is not on our side and the consequences of doing nothing are dire for millions of Americans who can’t keep going or haven’t yet begun their journey toward a degree or certificate. With these conclusive study results in hand, we know what students need to succeed. Now it’s up to us to do it.

[Courtney Brown, Ph.D., is vice president of impact and planning at Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation that works for racial equity as it helps all Americans learn beyond high school. Brown oversees Lumina’s strategic planning, impact and effectiveness, and also leads international engagement. Learn more about her work on the enrollment plunge.]


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