The cost of college is a huge obstacle, but students say free college would be the biggest factor in their decision to return to college.

Cost remains the top barrier to higher education

Surveyed students say free college would be the biggest determining factor in their decision to return to a postsecondary education path

The cost of college, including the expense of living and the cost of tuition and course materials, is the biggest barrier to post-secondary education for students.

Not surprisingly, current, future and students who dropped out say “free college” would have the single biggest impact on them finishing or returning to post-secondary education, according to the Barriers to Post-Secondary Education Report from Cengage Group, a global education technology company.

The company surveyed more than 1,600 current college students, recent high school graduates and students who have dropped out of post-secondary education to better understand their education barriers and what would have the biggest impact on them completing their education.

“Access to quality post-secondary education, be it in the form of a traditional degree or a skills-based certification, provides a clear path to job opportunities and economic mobility, however students need more affordable and flexible options,” said Michael Hansen, CEO of Cengage. “While ‘free college’ ranked high as having the biggest impact on students accessing and continuing their education, flexibility to take courses online was the second biggest factor. All of us serving higher education need to do more to lower the cost of education and increase awareness of flexible programs that meet learners where they are.”

Other findings include:

Students go to college to get a job. The number one reason current and potential students enroll/would enroll in college is because they say it is necessary for their career path and job opportunities after school (48 percent). Four-year college students are more likely to say they enrolled to expand their social and/or professional networks than students at two-year or technical colleges.

Cost is the biggest education barrier for current, future and former students. High school graduates are more concerned with cost of tuition and course materials while current students and former students (those who have dropped out) are more concerned with the cost of living. Twenty percent of all current college students – and 25 percent of two-year students – do not know how they will pay for their next semester. After costs, however, additional barriers to education included the status of the COVID-19 pandemic, flexibility to take courses online and the time to a degree.

Free college” would have the biggest impact on students finishing or returning to post-secondary education. Nearly half (46 percent) of students and adults said “free college” (President Biden’s American Families Plan or other proposed federal legislation) would have the greatest impact on them finishing or returning to school. Respondents who had dropped out were more likely to state past student debt forgiveness as an impact in returning to school. A close second factor impacting whether students finish their education is the “flexibility to take courses online” (37 percent).

Current college students are more likely consider alternative education paths. The majority of current post-secondary students (68 percent) have considered alternative education programs (skills courses or micro-credentials), while only 42 percent of recent high school grads have considered it, meaning more education is likely needed for high school students to fully assess all of the post-secondary education options available to them.

Hansen added that “getting more students access to post-secondary education and prepared for the workforce is critical for our economy. We have more job openings than people qualified to fill them. As we found with our recent Graduate Employability report, students are questioning the value of education. We need to break down the cost barriers students face and ensure that post-secondary education is preparing them with needed job skills, a concept we call Education for Employment.”

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Laura Ascione

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