Apr 17, 2024 - Economy

College costs the biggest barrier for most Americans, survey finds

Animated illustration of a felt pennant with dollar signs on it. One of the dollar signs peels off.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The sky-high price tag on a college degree is stopping people in their tracks.

Why it matters: Cost is a major barrier to both pursuing and obtaining a college degree or postsecondary credential and it's a reason why enrolled students consider dropping out, according to a new survey from Gallup and Lumina Foundation.

Driving the news: The study found that while most Americans (75%) believe a bachelor's degree is "extremely" or "very" valuable, cost is a major deterrent for many who wish to attain one.

  • It's also stopping students from completing their programs. More than half of adults (56%) who have never enrolled or once were said cost is a "very important" reason why they have not signed up for, or returned to, college.
  • Another 31% of enrolled adults said they considered stopping their coursework within the last three months due to the cost of attendance.

Yes, but: College is still worth it, as the wage gap between recent college and high school grads has been growing for decades.

Zoom in: The study found that despite the concerns, many people don't know the actual cost of a degree.

  • Nearly half of adults underestimate the cost of a bachelor's degree by $5,000 or more, while an additional 31% overestimate costs by the same margin, researchers found.
  • When told the actual cost of in-state attendance, half of adults who have never enrolled before said they would be "much" or "somewhat" more likely to pursue a bachelor's degree.

Zoom out: Borrowers in the U.S. collectively owe more than $1 trillion in student loans and the Biden administration is focusing in on cancelling some of that debt with billions in relief already delivered.

  • 71% of U.S. adults who have taken out loans for college said they've delayed at least one significant life event because of their student loan debt, including buying a home, purchasing a car or returning to complete their degree or credential.

What they're saying: "On one hand, Americans are citing cost as a primary barrier to entry, but on the other, they are unclear about what that cost truly is," Gallup researcher Stephanie Marken said.

  • "Higher education leaders need to bring clarity to the true cost of college to reduce confusion and provide a pathway for the millions of Americans who have considered, but not yet enrolled, in a postsecondary pathway," she continued.

Methodology: The State of Higher Education 2024 study results are based on web surveys conducted Oct. 9-Nov. 16, 2023, with U.S. adults aged 18 to 59 who have a high school degree/diploma or equivalent and have not yet completed an associate or bachelor's degree.

  • The total sample includes 6,015 students who are enrolled in a post-high school education program (certificate, associate or bachelor's degree), 5,012 adults previously enrolled in an education program after high school but had not completed an associate or bachelor's degree and 2,943 who never enrolled in an education program beyond high school.

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