What’s really putting a damper on college enrollment? Survey takes a closer look.

In a new survey of high school graduates who decided not to attend college or stopped out, more than half said they are unsure of their college plans (42%) or don’t plan on going/returning to college (13%), while only 46% say they definitely plan on going or returning to college.

The study, “Exploring the Exodus from Higher Education,” finds that higher education leaders need to offer a variety of financial, career, and academic supports so that potential college students see two- or four-year degrees as a worthwhile investment of their time and money.

Supported by Edge Research, HCM Strategists, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the study includes findings from 11 focus groups and a survey of 1,675 high school graduates ages 18-30 in seven states (California, Florida, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington) who decided not to attend or left two- or four-year institutions.

Related: Spring data show 5th straight semester of enrollment declines >

Changes in the education marketplace, priorities

While college costs remain a primary barrier to higher education, stress, a desire for a job, and uncertainty about the future were also key reasons people reported stopping out of college and others decided not to enroll at all. Asked which factors influenced their decision not to attend or complete college, 38% of respondents said college was too expensive/they did not want to take on more debt, followed by those who said it was too stressful (27%), preferred to get a job and make money (26%), or were uncertain about their major/future career (25%).

The COVID-19 pandemic and demographic changes have dominated the narrative about declining college enrollment in recent years but are not the only forces at work, the study points out. “Psychographics,” or psychological factors—satisfaction with one’s current life situation, confidence, or “connection to college” (having previously enrolled in college or having a parent with a college degree)—are far more predictive of students’ intentions to attend or return to college, the authors say.

The largest gaps between students who plan to attend/return to college and those that don’t depend on respondents’ education levels. Forty-four percent of adults with a high school education said they definitely planned on attending college, compared to 55% of those with some college education.

Related: Which colleges offer the greatest return on investment? >

Survey participants also based their decisions on value, investment, and opportunity costs. Forty-four percent of participants said on-the-job training was an excellent value, more than any other education or training opportunity mentioned in the survey, including two- and four- year college degrees. Asked about their personal goals over the next few years, most respondents agreed that being in a good place emotionally/positive mental health was important (87%) or a top priority (62%), the most popular answer, closely followed by financial stability, and earning more money. Getting a college degree in the next few years was last at 48%.

Related: Students dialing back their academic effort to protect their mental health, survey finds >

People are also turning to a variety of education options besides those offered by a two- or four-year college, including courses that provide a license or certification or classes available through YouTube.

Potential supports to help students to complete their degrees

Respondents pointed to a variety of services institutions could offer that would make college a more viable option. They said flexible scheduling, cost-of-living assistance, and being able to get an education without additional debt ranked as “extremely” or “very” helpful, along with being matched with academic, career, and financial advisors, according to Higher Ed Dive. Additionally, 62% agreed that they “would be willing to take on college debt if guaranteed a good job after graduation.”

Related: Georgetown tops list of colleges with high ROI for low-income students >

Martin Van Der Werf, director of editorial and educational policy at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, says the study shows higher education institutions must better communicate how a degree can lead to greater employment opportunities in the long run. Most potential college students are “far more interested in what the translation is from college to job. And part of that is they just don’t have time or money to explore,” he tells Inside Higher Ed. “For them it’s really about ‘How quickly can I turn this into something that will allow me to live a better life?’”

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