42% of stopped-out young adults cited financial reasons for leaving college, survey finds

Dive Brief:

  • A new survey of “disengaged learners” — students who have stopped out of college — found financial reasons to be the top cause for stepping away. Among surveyed adults ages 20-34 who have college credits but are no longer enrolled, 42% cited financial reasons for leaving, 32% blamed family or personal commitments, and 30% said the college wasn’t the right fit.
  • The longer a former student stays away, the less likely they are to reenroll, suggesting colleges need to move quickly to reengage students in hopes of bringing them back, according to the study released this week by the University Professional and Continuing Education Association and online education company StraighterLine.
  • Findings indicate that reaching personal goals are a deciding factor for students returning — just as they were for enrolling in the first place. In fact, 62% of disengaged learners were motivated originally to enroll to reach a personal goal, compared to 44% who cited career advancement, 42% love of learning, and 40% improving salary.

Dive Insight:

While finances ranked No. 1 among reasons for stopping out, more than half of the respondents were employed full time, with most working in retail or the food industry. Some 65% said their household income was $50,000 a year or less.

The survey, based on 1,021 responses, took place during two weeks in the spring of 2021 — in other words, well into the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting financial disruptions.

“Prospective returners are working with tight budgets,” said Amy Smith, StraighterLine’s chief learning officer. “The desire might be there, but the funds just aren’t.”

One notable exception was Generation Z respondents, defined as ages 20-22. In that age group, 43% said they left college because they felt a school was not a good fit for them. Only 35% said financial reasons caused them to take a break.

For college administrators, reenrolling students starts with acknowledging that students are stopping out in the first place, said Jim Fong, founding director of UPCEA’s Center for Research and Strategy.

“Colleges often don’t want to admit how many students leave school before graduating,” Fong said. “Institutions don’t want to tell the community, ‘Oh, we lost X number of students this year more than last year. That isn’t viewed as good PR.”

Yet the more quickly colleges acknowledge stopouts and move to implement reengagement strategies, the more likely they would be to reenroll students, according to Bruce Etter, assistant director of research for UPCEA.

“The biggest thing to me isn’t necessarily how you reengage with them, but that you do it sooner rather than later,” Etter said.

Almost half — 48% — of students who recently stopped taking classes said they were extremely or very satisfied with their former school. That number dropped to 38% after several years away. Etter said this growing disaffection dramatically impacts a school’s odds of bringing back a student.

“Those that are newly disengaged — maybe they left in the last year or two — are much more likely to reenroll than those who are long term disengaged,” he said.

Former students gave a variety of reasons for leaving college but overwhelmingly gave the same answer for why they would like to return.

“People come back because it was a personal goal,” Smith said. Almost two-thirds, 62%, want to finish their degree for themselves, not for professional achievement, he noted.

The study identified five main things institutions can offer to entice students to return: certificates for credits earned, less expensive classes, workshops to address students’ problems, counseling and help through concierge services.

Seven of every 10 respondents said a college embedding certifications in degrees could persuade them to return. The second most popular option was lower-cost courses, with 62% supporting that idea.

“This is a very individualized process — to make sure people feel a sense of belonging,” said Matt Bergman, an education professor at the University of Louisville. “Some of these strategies are very niche-focused but are very impactful.”

Demographic-focused strategy is important because some groups are easier to please than others.

Certain groups like Gen Z men and young millennial women were more receptive to engagement techniques than others, Etter said. On the other hand, mid-millenial women were less receptive than average to all strategies.

The study classified those ages 23-26 as young millennials and 27-34 as mid-millennials. Overall, the older former students get, the less likely they are to return.

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