Financial Barriers Biggest Issue Facing Higher Education

College enrollment rates have declined in recent years with students either discontinuing their higher education program before completion or opting not to attend post-secondary education altogether. Despite declining enrollment, however, most adults see the value in higher education and view a college degree as necessary for success. What, then, is preventing individuals from enrolling in and completing a higher education program? 

Reports indicate that while major concerns preventing students from pursuing higher education include work-life balance, mental health, and family/child support, the most frequently identified challenges to enrollment are financial barriers and the cost of education.

To better understand enrollment barriers, Gallup and Lumina Foundation partnered in a recent study to gain more insight into student enrollment decisions. The results for the Lumina Foundation-Gallup State of Higher Education 2023 Report are based on web surveys conducted in October and November of 2022. The survey was completed by over 12,000 US adults aged 18 to 59 who have a high school degree/diploma or equivalent and have not yet completed an associate or bachelor's degree. 

Findings of the study indicate that:

  • 41% of students enrolled in a postsecondary education program have considered “stopping out” in the past six months. 
  • Another 41% of students said it was "very difficult" or "difficult" for them to continue their programs and remain enrolled in the 2022 academic year.
  • Nearly half (47%) of unenrolled U.S. adults have considered enrolling in a bachelor's degree, associate degree, industry certification or certificate program in the past two years.

Though not the only reported barrier to enrollment, the report indicates that cost is still the biggest reported reason why individuals struggle to pursue a degree. Financial barriers including the cost of the program (55%), affordability due to inflation (45%) and the need to work (38%) are the most frequently reported reasons for individuals who are not currently enrolled, consistent with 2021 reports. 

Other reported barriers include emotional stress (30%) and mental health (28%), each listed as very important issues that have prevented individuals from enrolling. Notably, emotional and mental health issues were the top two reasons why enrolled students considered stopping their coursework in the past six months. Additionally, 26% indicate that child care responsibilities prevent individuals from enrolling.

“The results highlight that a significant number of currently enrolled students continue to struggle to remain enrolled and prospective students need further support to chart a pathway to and through postsecondary education," said Stephanie Marken, Gallup partner and executive director for education research. "What we found emphasizes the levers every institution needs to focus on — mental health and financial support that will make postsecondary education possible for millions more Americans.”

The report demonstrates that scholarship, grant, and fellowship programs that mitigate the cost of tuition coupled with student loan forgiveness programs are viewed as the most helpful in eliminating barriers to pursuing higher education. 

“Over 40 million people in the United States started college and for whatever reason stopped out before completing a credential,” said Lumina Foundation Vice President Courtney Brown. “These data provide a solution to bring back these students who are crippled by debt and get them to completion so they can have better jobs and better lives.”

About Lumina Foundation:

Lumina Foundation is an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all. We envision a system that is easy to navigate, delivers fair results, and meets the nation's need for talent through a broad range of credentials. Our goal is to prepare people for informed citizenship and success in a global economy. 

About Gallup:

Gallup delivers analytics and advice to help leaders and organizations solve their most pressing problems. Combining more than 80 years of experience with its global reach, Gallup knows more about the attitudes and behaviors of employees, customers, students, and citizens than any other organization in the world.