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Over the past two years, confidence in the value of education has been declining.
Young people, Black respondents, and those who have attended some college, but have not completed a bachelor’s or associate degree, are most likely to say they will enroll within the next five years.
Expectations about future enrollment and perceptions about the value of education both predict students’ actual enrollment behavior.
Potential students identify functional factors — flexible scheduling, credit for prior learning, financial aid — as the most likely means to increase the probability they would enroll in additional education and training.
Connections between education and career — supports that help students bridge the two as well as direct work-based learning experiences — are significantly linked to student and alumni confidence in the value of their education and their post-graduation outcomes.
Spring 2022 enrollment numbers from the National Student Clearinghouse reveal a fifth straight semester of enrollment declines, with more than 1 million fewer students enrolled compared to spring 2020 (see Figure 1).1National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (2022). Spring 2022 Current Term Enrollment Estimates. National Student Clearinghouse. Community colleges have been hardest hit, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the overall enrollment decline.2Across the two year and four year sector, enrollment fell by nearly 1.3 million from spring 2020 to spring 2022. Public two-year colleges lost more than 800,000 students over this period. In addition, applications for federal financial aid are down nearly 9 percent from last year and more than 15 percent for Pell-eligible students, though the picture is more promising for the high school class of 2022, where applications are up 5 percent overall and 10 percent for students from low-income schools (see Figure 2).3National College Attainment Network. (2022). Year-Over-Year Percent Change in 2022-2023 FAFSA Completions through March 31, by Applicant Type. National College Attainment Network.
Among the few bright spots where enrollment increased were computer science majors and certain career and technical education paths, such as transportation and materials moving, construction, precision production, and mechanic and repair technologies.4National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (2022). Spring 2022 Current Term Enrollment Estimates. National Student Clearinghouse. This is part of a larger trend of students moving away from the humanities and liberal arts and into fields of study that are perceived as more directly connected to future employment opportunities.5Barshay, J. (2021). The Number of College Graduates in the Humanities Drops for the Eighth Consecutive Year. Hechinger Report.
Source: National Student Clearinghouse, Term Enrollment Estimates, Spring 2022
Source: Year-Over-Year Percent Change in 2022-2023 FAFSA Completions through March 31, by Applicant Type. National College Attainment Network.
In this context of declining enrollment, our research explores expectations and sentiments around additional education and training. These data are drawn from Strada’s ongoing nationally representative survey research with thousands of past, present, and prospective students on their experiences and perspectives with regard to education and work. For this study, we examine the sentiments of those who hold an associate degree, a certificate or certification, some college but no credential, or who have no postsecondary education.
In contrast to the declining enrollment trends over the past two years, we see a rebound in enrollment expectations; that is, more people now say they are likely to enroll in additional education over the next five years. As Figure 3 shows, expectations about future enrollment are up 9 percentage points since spring 2020.
Source: Strada Education Survey 2019-2021. Base: Adults ages 18-65 with an associate degree or less and not currently enrolled. Likely to enroll within 5 years, n=varies from 1,054 to 4,005.
While self-reported likelihood to enroll had risen to 44 percent by fall 2021, this number was significantly higher among certain demographic groups, including 18- to 34-year-olds (69%), Black respondents (59%), and those with some college, but who had not completed a degree (56%) (see Figure 4).
Source: Strada Education Survey 2021. Base: Adults ages 18-65 with an associate degree or less and not currently enrolled, n=3,074.
We also find that self-reported likelihood to enroll correlates with actual enrollment behavior. In a follow-up survey conducted in spring of 2022, respondents who had indicated that they were likely to enroll were more than three times as likely to have enrolled compared to others (one in six, versus one in 20) as shown in Figure 5.
Source: Strada Recontact Survey. Base: Adults ages 18-65 with an associate degree or less and not currently enrolled at the time of the first survey, n=2,456.
However, stated likelihood to enroll is only part of the story. When people say they expect to enroll but do not, what has happened? Part of the answer may lie in eroding confidence in the value of education. Since the start of the pandemic, expectations that education will be worth the cost have steadily declined and are down 18 percentage points since spring 2020. Similarly, expectations around the ability of education to help advance one’s career or get a stable job have also fallen (see Figure 6).
Source: Strada Education Survey 2020-2021. Base: Adults ages 18-65 with an associate degree or less and not currently enrolled. Likely to enroll within 5 years, n=varies from 1,054 to 4,005.
These doubts about the value of postsecondary education have been found in other recent surveys, including surveys from the Federal Reserve System, YouthTruth, ECMC Foundation, and Third Way/ New America.
We find that perceptions of education’s value are just as important for predicting enrollment behavior as respondents’ self-reported likelihood to enroll. In our recontact survey, among prospective learners who did not expect to enroll and did not perceive additional education as worth the cost, 0 percent went on to enroll. Among those who expected to enroll but did not see cost value, 10 percent enrolled, and among those who did not expect to enroll but did consider it worth the cost, 14 percent went on to enroll. The highest enrollment (32%) was observed among respondents who shared both sentiments: an expectation of enrolling and a perception that it would be worth the cost (see Figure 7).
Percentage of people in each category who enrolled in education or training
Source: Strada Recontact Survey. Base: Adults ages 18-65 with an associate degree or less and not currently enrolled at the time of the first survey, survey years 2019-2021, n=580 for likely to enroll question and n=289 for worth the cost question.
In addition to doubts about value, prospective students identified multiple barriers to enrollment, including cost, balancing school with other responsibilities, fear of failure, and uncertainty around the job market and their educational path (see Figure 8).
Source: Fall 2021 Strada Education Survey, adults ages 18-65 with an associate degree or less, n=3,159.
Their expectations of what would help them to enroll reflected solutions to these challenges, including flexible schedules, credit for prior learning, financial aid, work-based learning, and confidence that education would help them to advance their career (see Figure 9).
Percent who said the factor would make theme ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ likely to enroll.
Source: Strada Recontact Survey Spring 2022. Base: Adults ages 18-65 with an associate degree or less and not currently enrolled, n=1,387.
These findings on barriers and supports confirm much of what is known in the field about the importance of making education accessible to students in terms of both cost and time. In addition to tangible and logistical solutions, we also see the importance of the intangible — the need to boost students’ confidence and ease uncertainty around their path. Uncertainty and fear of failure have been consistently identified as a challenge for prospective students, especially adults who have stopped out or been out of school for a while.6Strada Education Network (2020). Insights from 2020, Implications for 2021. Strada Education Network.
Student confidence and post graduation outcomes are both strengthened through connections to careers. When students feel they have support to connect their education to a career, they are more likely to feel their education will be worth the cost. Similarly, college graduates who had student experiences that connected them directly to careers – like internships, career advising, and mentoring – earn more money and are more likely to say their education helped them to achieve their goals.7Torpey-Saboe, N. & Clayton, D. (2021). Student Outcomes Beyond Completion. Strada Education Network. Paid internships are particularly effective at boosting student confidence and raising future earnings.8Torpey-Saboe, N., Leigh, E. & Clayton, D. (2022). The Power of Work-Based Learning. Strada Education Network. This boost is seen regardless of field of study, though participation in internships tends to be much more limited for certain majors.
If enrollment trends are not reversed, millions more Americans will miss out on education that would otherwise provide opportunities for a better future. The declines in college going are most severe among low-income students, who also have the greatest need for the mobility offered by education. The data point to opportunities for addressing the challenge. Many students are interested in enrolling, but they lack confidence that they will succeed and they require financial and other resources to help them make the most of their education.
Finally, colleges and universities can help students more clearly see the value of education by offering students the tools they need to connect their education to a meaningful career. These resources should be available across pathways and fields of study. When these costs and benefits are properly balanced, millions more Americans will gain the opportunity for a better future.
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Spring 2022 enrollment numbers from the National Student Clearinghouse reveal a fifth straight semester of enrollment declines, with more than 1 million fewer students enrolled compared to spring 2020
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