Entering 2023, College Affordability Looms Large

The cost of higher education has more than doubled in the past decade and students are wondering if the value of getting a degree is worth the high price tag. Moving into 2023 colleges and universities need to hone in more on student perceptions of degree value and student needs for more nontraditional options.

Cengage’s Fall 2022 Digital Learning Pulse Survey illuminates the hard issues circulating the higher education industry for the coming year. As part of an ongoing research program that aims to understand the evolution of higher education in the wake of the pandemic, this new report strives to tease out how students, faculty, and administrators feel about rising tuition costs, the perceived value of a college degree, and imminent enrollment challenges. 

“Higher education institutions have had to be agile and willing to experiment throughout the pandemic, and that need will continue as student demand for more affordable and flexible education options only grows,” said Edwin Robles, SVP, General Manager, U.S. Higher Education and Canada at Cengage. “Students want choices on when and how they learn and institutions that are ready to meet demand for new learning formats and quality digital programs that are aligned to students’ academic and career goals will see success.”

Conducted by Bay View Analytics on behalf of Cengage, the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT), Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) and the Higher Education Research & Development Institute (HERDI), the Fall 2022 Digital Learning Pulse Survey included over 3,600 responses across two- and four-year institutions, including more than 1,200 faculty and administrators and over 2,350 students. The survey results represent over 1,200 institutions across all 50 states. 

The results indicate that obtaining a college degree is unaffordable for most and inflation has only amplified this reality. In fact, forty seven percent of students, 37% of administrators, and 41% of faculty strongly agree that the cost of education has become financially unfeasible. 

Despite the rising cost, the majority of students report feeling that their education is worth what they’re paying and is meeting their educational needs. In fact, three quarters of two-year students and two-thirds of four-year students assign a grade of an "A" or "B" on the value of their education compared to the cost. Meanwhile, 86% of all students give an "A" or "B" grade for their education meeting their needs. Students at two-year institutions report being grade “A” satisfied (47%) with the value of their education compared to students at four-year institutions (34%).

Administrators are concerned about future enrollments, with community college leaders reportedly being the most deeply concerned. Over 80% of academic administrators, across all institution types, express some level of concern about future enrollments, and nearly 9 in 10 (88%) of administrators are concerned about future enrollments. Almost half (47%) of two-year college administrators are “very concerned” about the future of their enrollments. 

“While enrollments are certainly a substantial concern for administrators,” said Dr. Jeff Seaman, lead researcher and Director of Bay View Analytics, “there is a strong underlining of good news as students continue to see the value of higher education even if they want it delivered in new formats and on their terms.”

Salves to enrollment challenges are top priority, with many institutions already rolling out initiatives to retain and increase student numbers. Many two- and four-year schools are already providing more online (73%; 52%) or blended (72%; 48%) options for students, while others intend to increase their flexible course offerings. Other institutions have already or plan to redesign programs (54%; 38%), revisit existing programs (48%; 41%), add micro-credential programs (30%; 34%), and add programs designed for stopped students (25%; 38%). 

“It is not a surprise that students are worried about rising costs of college and with the inflation that is driving all costs up,” said ACCT President and CEO Jee Hang Lee. “The survey demonstrates that a strong majority of community college students feel their educations are worth their investments and that their colleges value them. Community colleges are tailor made for helping students with limited resources thrive during challenging economic times. These survey findings help college leaders to make the best decisions for their institutions’ students.”

With the rise of inflation causing many individuals to rethink their educational paths, students are growing concerned with the rising cost of tuition, but still believe that education is worthwhile. Higher education institutions must offer both affordable and meaningful education paths to retain current students and attract new students.