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Published: May 03, 2023 7 min read
College students in a lecture room
Eddie Lee / Money; Shutterstock

College costs are the No. 1 barrier to enrolling in higher education, according to a report out Wednesday from Gallup and the Lumina Foundation.

The report also finds college costs are one of the top three factors driving current college students to consider withdrawing — something 4 in 10 students said they've considered in the past six months. (Emotional stress and mental health were the other two top reasons students thought about leaving school.)

Courtney Brown, vice president of impact and planning at the Lumina Foundation, a private foundation that focuses on education beyond high school, says there's actually some good news in the report — specifically, that the majority of people who both are and aren't in college still see the value of a degree.

"The problem is, it's out of reach for too many Americans financially," she says.

What the data says

Gallup and Lumina surveyed 12,000 U.S. adults, including 6,000 who are currently enrolled in a postsecondary education program, last fall to produce their third annual State of Higher Education report.

Here's a deeper look at some of the survey findings:

  • Forty-one percent of current college students reported they had thought about "stopping out" — or withdrawing for at least one term — in the past six months. That's up from 37% in 2021 and 34% in 2020. The trend is particularly pronounced among Black, Hispanic and male students.
  • Among adults without a degree who aren't currently enrolled, 55% reported program costs as a "very important" reason why they're not in college, while 45% blamed concerns about affordability due to inflation and 38% cited the need to work.
  • Cost was also the biggest barrier to re-enrolling for those who had stopped out, with 54% saying it was a very important reason why they hadn't returned to school.

Key context

It's common knowledge today that college costs have ballooned, with the average total price at four-year colleges roughly doubling in the past three decades. Yet the pace of price growth has slowed down in recent years, particularly when considering that financial aid has also increased to help offset higher sticker prices.

In fact, after accounting for inflation, college prices have started to drop. In the last three years, average net prices — the amount students actually end up paying after scholarships and grants — have decreased by about 10% at four-year colleges, according to an analysis published in February by economist Phillip Levine, who studies college pricing.

Still, the Gallup and Lumina survey shows affordability continues to play a key role both in whether adults decide to enroll and whether students are able to remain in school. On average, students now pay $14,560 at public four-year colleges and $28,660 at private four-year colleges for tuition, fees, and room and board, according to an annual report from the College Board.

Why it's important

College enrollment rates were already shrinking before the pandemic, but the trend accelerated in 2020 and 2021. Last year, undergraduate degree completions fell for the first time in a decade, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit research organization that tracks college enrollment.

And yet, 60% of jobs today require some type of education after high school, Brown says. Barriers to enrolling and completing a college credential have ripple effects for individuals, who may be less likely to find stable, decent-paying jobs without degrees, as well as for communities and the economy at large, which will struggle without enough qualified workers, she says.

What's more, Black and Hispanic students are more likely than white students to say they've considering stopping out of colleges, and male students are more likely than female students to report the same.

In all three of those groups, the share of students saying they've considered withdrawing has grown more than for other student populations. That's concerning because while college completion rates are up across the board, there remain large gaps between the rates for white students and the rates for Black and Hispanic students. Male students, too, have lower enrollment rates and lower completion rates than women.

The effect of student loans on enrollment

The report also includes a deep dive into student loans, finding that more than a quarter of students who stopped their studies have student debt. The share is even higher among students who were pursuing a bachelor's degree, with 39% saying they hold student loans.

This population of borrowers, often dubbed "debt but no degree," are far more likely to struggle with loan payments because they don't see the earnings boost associated with a postsecondary credential. One report found that 40% of borrowers without a degree ended up defaulting on their loans.

In the Gallup survey, when asked what would help them get back to school, nearly half of students with debt said they'd be "very likely" to enroll if their loans were forgiven. On average, students who've stopped out with debt said that they'd need at least 70% of their balance forgiven to re-enroll.

"Some of these loans aren't even that large, but they're crippling to an individual, and they're keeping them from coming back," Brown says, adding that removing the barriers stopping students from re-enrolling could result in millions more Americans earning a degree.

Some 40 million Americans have some college credits but no degree, according to recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse. The Biden administration's loan forgiveness program — currently on hold while the Supreme Court decides on its legality — would wipe out up to $20,000 of debt for individuals earning under $125,000. That would cover most, if not all, of borrowers who don't have a degree.

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