Despite the sticker shock, students see the value in a college degree to career success. So, what happens when they can’t afford it?
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Despite the sticker shock, students see the value in a college degree to career success. So, what happens when they can’t afford it?

A conversation with Courtney Brown, VP of strategic impact and planning, Lumina Foundation and Stephanie Marken, senior partner, Gallup

In this episode of Work in Progress, Courtney Brown, VP of strategic impact and planning for Lumina Foundation, and Stephanie Marken, senior partner at Gallup, share details of a new joint study that finds that college affordability is a top concern for Americans, despite seeing a degree as valuable to career success.

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Working Nation's Work in Progress podcast, episode 316

Despite the sticker shock, students see the value in a college degree to career success. So, what happens when they can’t afford it?

The Lumina Foundation-Gallup State of Higher Education 2024 shows that cost remains a major barrier for students seeking a postsecondary education, with 38% of students plunging deep into date to pay for their education beyond high school.

“We have seen over the last decade enrollments declining in postsecondary education. At the same time, we need more talented people in our country. This is a problem. We see over and over again that cost is a huge barrier,” Courtney Brown of Lumina Foundation tells me.

Stephanie Marken of Gallup adds, “We very intentionally interviewed people who don’t have a degree or credential because we want to understand their attitudes towards and experiences with postsecondary education pathways, whatever that pathway might be. We found that over half of those who we interviewed who were not currently enrolled reported it was a very or somewhat important reason as to why they were not currently enrolled.”

The researchers also talked to students who are currently enrolled about the high cost of higher education. “About a third of students who we interviewed reported that cost is a major barrier to continuing enrollment. We asked individuals if they considered stepping out in the past six months. We found about a third said that they had struggled to remain enrolled. Cost was the major reason for that,” according to Marken

The study also finds that 71% of those who borrowed for postsecondary education struggle for years to repay their loans, says Marken, delaying major life decisions “whether that was buying a car, buying a home, having children, returning to postsecondary education for those who had stepped out temporarily. It’s really keeping them from achieving important milestones that we would say is a life well-lived.”

Despite the high cost, says Brown, the survey found that people do value a degree or a credential beyond high school. “We see over and over again that they say having some credential after high school is extremely or very valuable. That includes a certification, a certificate, or a degree.

“And 75% of students who were previously enrolled say that it’s extremely valuable, so even the people that have not completed (their degree). I think it’s really important that we understand that people value it, they just can’t access it.”

Brown also talks about the impact of not being able to afford college. “It’s huge. We’re seeing more and more schools having to close because the enrollments are declining. So that becomes a problem. That also becomes a problem for the communities those institutions are in because they’re probably one of the number one employers in those communities.

“So there’s this cascading of effect when enrollments start to decline. And most importantly, we’re not going to have thriving communities. We’re not going to have a nation that can compete economically, socially with others around the globe.

Brown and Marken address some of the other fallout from college being out of range financially for students of all ages. You can listen to the podcast here, or find it wherever you get your podcasts.

Read the Lumina Foundation-Gallup State of Higher Education 2024.