Promising options for unenrolled adults

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Associate degree or short-term credential programs remain the most popular pathways among adults who have stopped out of college and those who have never enrolled, according to an annual report by Gallup and Lumina Foundation based on a survey of adults who are enrolled in college, have stopped out or have never enrolled.

Similar to survey results in 2021, the 2022 survey on which the report is based shows all unenrolled adults age 18 to 59 who have considered enrolling in any program in the past two years are more likely to have considered an associate degree (40%) or certificate (40%) than an industry credential (27%) or a bachelor’s degree (27%).

Those rates are about the same for older adults (ages 25 to 59) who have considered pursuing some type of program: they are most likely to have considered certificates (41%) or an associate degree (40%) over all other options. While bachelor’s degrees are not popular pathways for those 25 and older, they are among younger unenrolled adults, it adds. Those ages 18 to 24 are more likely than their older counterparts to have considered a bachelor’s degree (42% compared to 24%), but associate degree and certificate programs are about as popular among both age groups.

The survey also found that unenrolled women are more likely than unenrolled men to consider certificates (46% compared to 35%) or associate degrees (44% compared to 36%), and they are less likely to have considered getting an industry certification (15% vs. 37%). Unenrolled men’s interests gravitate less toward one type of program or credential, the report says, with similar percentages saying they have considered pursuing an industry certification, certificate or associate degree.

What’s holding them back?

Costs remain the high hurdle, but other factors are also a barrier, the report says. Unenrolled adults identified financial barriers such as cost of a program (55%), affordability due to inflation (45%) and the need to work (38%) as very important reasons they are not currently enrolled. Cost was the top reason as well in the 2021 survey, mentioned by the same percentage (55%) of unenrolled adults.

The majority of unenrolled adults — whether they stopped out or never enrolled — see community college as an affordable option compared to other types of postsecondary education, the report says. Among total unenrolled adults, 72% said community colleges were very/somewhat affordable, compared to 38% who said so of public, non-flagship four-year institutions and 26% who said the same of public, flagship four-year institutions. About a quarter selected for-profits (24%) and private, non-for-profit four-year colleges (23%).

“Even among those with household incomes under $24,000, more than two-thirds of unenrolled adults think community college is very or somewhat affordable,” the report says.

Other non-financial factors may be keeping unenrolled adults from returning to college. The adults cited emotional stress (30%) or personal mental health (28%) as very important reasons why they are not currently enrolled.

The report notes that unenrolled Black and Hispanic adults were more likely than white adults to cite nonfinancial factors as barriers, including mental or physical health issues, caregiver responsibilities and inadequate preparation. For example, one-third (33%) of Black adults and one-third of Hispanic adults indicated childcare responsibilities as an important reason for not enrolling compared to one-fifth (22%) of white adults.

Roughly the same percentages for each race/ethnic population said the same about the favorable job market keeping them from enrolling (33%, 34% and 22%, respectively).

Still tough for enrolled students

Although there’s been much discussion about how to bring back learners who stopped out or didn’t enroll during the Covid pandemic, it’s as important — and perhaps more critical — to find ways to keep current students, especially given the survey findings. Currently enrolled students are finding it just as difficult to stay enrolled as they did the year before, the report says, with more students — especially Black, Hispanic and males — considering stopping out. They cite emotional stress and mental health as the main reasons they are contemplating a hold on their studies, though cost and inflation are key factors, too.

Forty-one percent of enrolled students in 2022 said it was very difficult or difficult to remain enrolled in their program, which is similar to the 39% who said the same in 2021. Those enrolled in credential programs found it more difficult to stay enrolled than those pursuing associate or bachelor’s degrees, the survey shows.

Hispanic (50%) and Black students (40%) were more likely than white students (37%) to report difficulty remaining enrolled. Male students (43%) were slightly more likely than female students (38%) to report having difficulties, with the gender gap widening in 2022, the report says.

Among associate-degree students, 44% considered stopping out (withdrawing from their program for at least one term) over the past six months. That’s higher than the percentages in the 2021 and 2020 surveys (41% and 38%, respectively). The rates for associate-degree students are higher than those for baccalaureate students, 36% of whom considered stopping out (compared to 32% in 2021 and 33% in 2020).

The rates among all enrolled Black and Hispanic students edged up in the 2022 survey. More than half (52%) of Hispanic students and 43% of Black students said they considered stopping out for at least one term sometime over the past six months.

“As they have since 2020, Hispanic students continue to be the most likely racial and/or ethnic group to report they have considered stopping out of their programs,” the report says.

The report also notes a bump among enrolled male students who have thought about stopping out — 41% compared to 33% in 2021 and 34% in 2020. The report adds it’s “a somewhat concerning development given men’s relatively lower enrollment and completion rates.”

For enrolled women, the rate of those who considered stopping out was 40%, the same as in the 2021 survey.

What keeps them going?

Despite the challenges, enrolled students recognize the value of a college credential, the report says. More than half of enrolled students cited the following as reasons to continue:

  • Obtain knowledge or skills (65% total; 63% among associate-degree students and 73% among baccalaureate students)
  • It will help to get a higher paying job (62%; 60% and 72%)
  • Allow pursuing a more fulfilling career (60%; 57% and 70%)
  • Personal fulfillment or achievement (55%; 53% and 64%)

Having financial aid or scholarships to continue is also very important for enrolled students.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.