Where are the students?

New research into college enrollment declines
Students in lab
Edge Research and HCM Strategists

Enrollment is declining in higher education, and while it's easy to blame it on the pandemic, data show it has been going on for longer than that. At the same time, we know that a postsecondary education is one of the best drivers of economic and social mobility.

This memo summarizes the key findings from our recent study, “Exploring the Exodus from Higher Education.” The study, conducted from January – April 2022, included 11 focus groups and robust online survey (n=1,675) of high school graduates, 18-30 years of age, who decided not to go to college or dropped out of a 2-year or 4-year college program. The survey fielded March – April 2022.[1] 

The purpose of this research is to understand why growing numbers of people are choosing not to go to college and what might help these learners decide to give college a chance.

This issue is not one of demographics alone

When examining the audience of young adults who have not attended/completed college, it is important to consider psychographics and not merely differences on demographic variables such as race, ethnicity, or gender. When respondents are asked about their future plans regarding college, overall, forty-six percent (46%) indicate they definitely plan on going/returning, 41% are unsure, and 13% don’t plan on going/returning. Asked about timing, those who plan to attend lean farther into the future, with 37% reporting that they plan to attend in 1-3 years, compared with 6 months to a year (31%) and within the next 6 months (15%).

However, if we look more closely at the 46% who definitely plan on going/returning, we see a relatively even split within key demographic variables (see Table 1). In other words, the reticence about higher education is not limited to a specific demographic.

Table 1 -- % Who Definitely Plan on Going/Returning to College by Key Demographics



Female – 47%

Black – 50%

Male – 46%

Hispanic – 50%


White – 42%

Red = statistically significantly lower than other audiences within subgroup

Regression analyses support this finding. They reveal that characteristics such as satisfaction with one’s current life situation (e.g., future career/job prospects, financial health), and having a touchpoint to college (i.e., having attended some college and having a family member with a degree) are among the most powerful drivers of intent to attend/go back to school. These dimensions are far more predictive than demographics.

The education marketplace has shifted

With YouTube, stackable courses, certifications, on-the-job training, etc., there are more education options available today than ever. This audience has taken advantage of multiple avenues for learning outside of a college or university and sees great utility in doing so. More specifically, almost half (47%) indicate they have taken or are currently taking classes via YouTube, and approximately one-quarter have taken or are currently enrolled in courses to receive a license (25%) or to receive a verified certificate (22%).

This audience shares mixed views on the value of post-high school education

They place the highest value in on-the-job training, with 44% deeming it an excellent value—more than any other education or training opportunity offered in the survey. In fact, 70% of this audience strongly or somewhat agree with the statement, “On-the-job training is the best path to career advancement.”

It is also important to note that several identify other educational options as an excellent value:

  • Course/courses to receive a license (35%)
  • Four-year college degree (35%)
  • Course/courses to obtain a verified certificate (34%)
  • Course/courses to obtain a professional certification (33%)
  • Two-year degree (28%)

Yet, more agree that a good job requires a certification as proof of someone’s skills (68% agree) than those who agree that a good job requires a college degree (57% agree).   

This audience makes its decisions about education based on value, investment, and opportunity cost. Yes, affordability matters, but return on investment matters more—to these young adults it is not merely about overcoming a financial barrier.  In fact, 62% agree that they “would be willing to take on college debt if guaranteed a good job after graduation.” They want to be assured of the results that would make college worth their time and money.

And, when asked with which of the following statements they agree with,

  • 38% agreed with the statement: “Getting a college degree is worth the investment because after I graduate, I will be able to be able to have a career that allows me to be financially stable.
  • 45% agreed with the statement: “Getting a college degree is not worth the investment, because I cannot afford to go into debt when I am not guaranteed a future career path.” Note how this statement indicates the lack of an assured ROI.[2]

Results reveal additional supports for college students can make a difference, but they must extend beyond the financial

The college price tag remains a primary obstacle for these young adults to obtain a degree, but it is not the only barrier to overcome. When given a list of potential reasons they have not gone/not completed a college degree program, 38% select it is too expensive/they do not want to take on more debt. This item is followed by 27% who select it is too stressful/too much pressure, the belief it is more important to get a job and make money (26%), and uncertainty about their major/future career (25%).

Table 2 further illustrates why assistance should include more than financial help.  For example, more program flexibility and counselors to assist with job searches and help navigating college academics would be welcomed additions, among others.

Table 2.  Helpfulness of potential supports to assist individuals to complete/get a degree


% Extremely Helpful

% Extremely + Very Helpful

Being able to get more education without additional debt



Having a free class for all new students on managing personal finances



Having more flexibility in programs to fit your life



Being matched w/ a financial aid advisor who can help w/ financial aid, scholarships, and questions about $ management



Job counselor who will help you make connections, prepare for interviews, help you find job you are looking for



Free technology, such as a laptop and internet access, when you enroll



Assistance with costs of living, such as childcare and free transportation, etc.



Counselor to help you figure out what to study, classes to take, meeting major requirements



Having opportunities to get real-world, hands-on experience while in school



Knowing that all of your classes will be in person




It is also important to note that most of this audience did not feel as though high school adequately prepared them for life after graduation. Only 30% thought high school prepared them extremely or very well for their next step in life. Thirty-one percent (31%) indicated somewhat well, and almost four-in-ten (38%) selected “not too well” or “not well at all.”  Specifically, results indicate that high school provided important social skills, but it did not prepare this audience for “real world” needs such as how to get and keep a job, how to do taxes, and establish/maintain good credit, let alone how to succeed in college.

An audience segmentation, based on key psychographic variables, reveals targets for support and policy intervention

To better understand how to affect positive change among this audience’s decisions about college, we must look beyond demographics and understand their varying mindsets, motivations, current life experiences, and outlook on the future. Doing so uncovers four mutually exclusive subgroups:

  • “Where is the ROI?” (35% of this audience) – This segment questions the value of college and requires guidance to ensure they get the most out of it. Their preferred supports—how to navigate financial aid and obtain assistance with post-degree job hunting—would help them answer and overcome the ROI question.
  • “Why Change the Status Quo” (29%) – These individuals report the most success with their current life situation (including employment) and as such, must overcome the opportunity cost they face associated with obtaining a degree.
  • “Cost-Conscious Explorers” (18%) – This group sees the value of a college degree but view the anxiety/pressure associated with it as an obstacle. They react positively to most supports, including those to help avoid the stress of debt and provide more program flexibility to fit their lives.
  • “It’s Not for Me” (19%) – This segment is the furthest from obtaining a college degree and likely the least affected by policy interventions. Compared to the other segments, they have they least confidence in their abilities and see the least value in college and other educational options.

[1] Please refer to the full report for detailed information about the study’s methodology.

[2] 17% agreed with both statements or were unsure.