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The College Dilemma: Costs, Stress, and the Struggle to Pursue Higher Education

A recent report by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation reveals that college costs are the primary barrier to enrolling in higher education. These costs are also one of the top three factors driving current college students to consider dropping out, along with emotional stress and mental health.

Despite these challenges, the report highlights that most people, whether in college or not, still recognize the value of a degree. However, the financial strain puts higher education out of reach for many Americans.

Key Findings

The survey included 12,000 U.S. adults and discovered that:

  • 41% of current college students have considered “stopping out” (withdrawing for at least one term) within the past six months, with Black, Hispanic, and male students being particularly affected.
  • 55% of adults without a degree and not currently enrolled identified program costs as a “very important” reason for not pursuing higher education. In comparison, 45% cited affordability concerns due to inflation, and 38% pointed to the need to work.

The Rising Cost of College

Over the past three decades, college costs have doubled. However, in recent years, the growth in college prices has slowed, and financial aid has increased to help offset the higher sticker prices. After accounting for inflation, college prices have even begun to drop, with average net prices at four-year colleges decreasing by about 10% over the last three years.

Despite these improvements, the issue of affordability continues to impact enrollment and student retention. On average, students pay $14,560 at public four-year colleges and $28,660 at private four-year colleges for tuition, fees, and room and board.

The Importance of Higher Education Access

Barriers to enrolling and completing a college degree have repercussions for individuals, communities, and the economy. As 60% of jobs now require some form of postsecondary education, individuals without degrees are less likely to find stable, well-paying jobs. Communities and economies will struggle to fill positions with qualified workers.

The Role of Student Loans

Over a quarter of students who stopped their studies have student debt, with the share rising to 39% among those pursuing a bachelor’s degree. These “debt but no degree” borrowers are far more likely to struggle with loan payments, as they don’t experience the earnings boost associated with postsecondary credentials.

Nearly half of the students with debt said they would be “very likely” to enroll if their loans were forgiven, with the average student needing at least 70% of their balance forgiven to re-enroll. Addressing the issue of student loans could enable millions more Americans to earn a degree and contribute to the workforce.