Student perceptions of American higher education

Continued research exploring college enrollment declines
students in computer classroom

In 2022, the Foundation, HCM Strategists, and Edge Research collaborated on an initial effort to understand why enrollment is declining in higher education, focusing on 18- to 30-year-olds who did not complete or never enrolled in a 2-year or 4-year college program (“Non-Enrollees”). The survey uncovered that the education marketplace had shifted, and this audience holds mixed perspectives when it comes to the value of higher education. 

In 2023, the team wanted to build upon this work, not only to see how much, if at all, attitudes and intentions regarding higher education have changed among this audience but to expand our understanding to include current high school juniors and seniors (“High Schoolers”). This was an important addition, as this year’s study also includes a deep dive into where these audiences need assistance and what supports they find most useful during their college education journeys.

This memo summarizes the key findings from our 10 focus groups conducted in June 2023 (three  groups of high school juniors and seniors and seven groups of high school graduates who decided not to attend college or dropped out of a 2- or 4-year program; a mix of demographics including gender, race, ethnicity, geography, first-generation status) and a n=4,848 national survey of Non-Enrollees (n=3,130) and High Schoolers (n=1,718) fielded September – October 2023.[1]

Overview of 2023 Findings

Despite our understanding of the value of higher education, perceptions among these audiences make it clear that institutions need to prove their value to them. In particular, why does the value of a 2-year or 4-year degree outweigh the value of credentials and job training programs? Both High Schoolers and Non-Enrollees see and select other paths that are shorter, cheaper, and/or more directly linked to specific job opportunities.

As part of that effort, these audiences want and need supports throughout their college journeys to reach the destination of acquiring a degree. These audiences feel anxious about making the wrong choices when it comes to college, and that those choices will impact the rest of their lives. Finally, it is also important to understand that the information received by these audiences differs by cohort. High Schoolers are at the epicenter of the college information network. Non-Enrollees, on the other hand, are forced to seek information about colleges, and the information they find tends to be less positive compared to what High Schoolers receive and consume about higher education.

Higher Education Must Prove Value to Potential Students, Who are Currently More Attracted to Immediate, Lower-Cost Options

Similar to the 2022 study, both audiences look at the decision to attend a 2-year or 4-year institution through a cost-benefit analysis lens—will the investment of time and money to obtain a degree provide a guarantee of economic stability?  Both audiences indicate the following as the most important reasons to get a college degree (see Table 1):

Table 1 - Top 4 Reasons to Obtain a College Degree (out of 11), 2023 Survey Results

Reason to get a College Degree (% Very/Smwt Important)


High School

To be able to make more money



To be able to get a better job and/or promotion



To get training for a specific career



To have more job security



That said, compared to last year’s survey, the importance scores for all the reasons to get a college degree declined among Non-Enrollees.

As also was the case in the 2022 study, Non-Enrollees find some value in traditional higher education options, but these paths fall below the value they associate with job training and courses to receive a license. In fact, the percentage of Non-Enrollees who find courses to receive a license or professional certificate as an “excellent or good value” increased since last year (to receive a license – 75% excellent/good value [+5 compared to 2022]; to receive professional certificate – 72% excellent/good value [+5 compared to 2022]). High school students also share this sentiment. This younger cohort places significantly more value in on-the-job training or licensing compared to a 2-year or 4-year degree (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 - Value of Education and Training Opportunities, 2023 Survey Results

Value of Education and Training Opportunities, 2023 Survey Results

Underscoring these findings, just over half (51%) of Non-Enrollees and 58% of High Schoolers agree with the statement, “These days, a good job requires a college degree.”  But significantly more—approximately two-thirds of each audience—contend, “These days, a good job requires a certification as proof of someone’s skills” (65% and 69%, respectively).

Each Phase of the College Journey—Pre-College, Paying for College, Attending College—Contains “Problem Areas” that Must Be Addressed

The 2022 study revealed the need for financial and mental health supports to help Non-Enrollees obtain a degree. This year, the survey dissected the college journey in three phases to identify specific pain points for each audience and potential solutions.

High School Students – In a nutshell, these students “don’t know what they don’t know” and are afraid of making the wrong decision. They feel the most confident about the Pre-College phase (i.e., what they know). They are more likely to believe they are academically prepared for college and have a sense of the educational options that lead to high-paying jobs. Their familiarity and comfort end there. When it comes to the Paying for College phase, they admit little understanding of how financial aid works, managing the logistics necessary to acquire financial aid, and fully comprehending what they can afford. The Attending College phase is furthest off their radar, and they share concerns of picking the wrong classes/major, and not being able to balance multiple responsibilities while there.

Non-Enrollees – Interestingly, Non-Enrollees mirror high school students when it comes to key pain points of Paying for College and Attending College; however, the latter phase is more complex for Non-Enrollees. With family responsibilities and jobs, their concerns about attending college also involve what they potentially lose by attending a 2-year or 4-year institution. And they are significantly more critical of their high school preparation. They feel as if they need more help completing applications; deciding what to study and the educational options that might lead to good jobs; and being prepared socially and emotionally. They require a new on-ramp to attending college.

Students Want Expert Help Along the Way, in Addition to Financial Assistance

The cost of college and living expenses remain a primary barrier and concern, and an area where both audiences want more support. In addition, these audiences want expert guidance to ensure they are on the right track academically (i.e., someone to help with class/major selection, ensure they graduate on time), financially (i.e., someone who can help with the FAFSA and scholarship applications), and in their career (see Figure 2). It is this latter type of assistance—someone who helps to find apprenticeships/internships, navigate the job market, etc.—that connects the dots on the college education equation. They help to make the decision “worth it,” so students can see the through-line from college to career.

Figure 2 - Supports Extremely Helpful in Going to College/Getting a Degree, 2023 Survey

Media Matters—Tone of Information About College Impacts Perspectives on Future Attendance

The survey also explored how these audiences receive information about higher education, its overarching tone, and impact. The tone and type of information these audiences receive impacts their higher education perspectives. High Schoolers are more likely to report that their top sources share mostly positive information about college. Both audiences indicate that sources such as Google searches, social media, and their peer set are more likely to share mixed messages about higher education, and these three sources are primary means through which Non-Enrollees obtain information. And the data clearly indicate that this media matters to both audiences (see Table 2). Those who perceive their college-related information to be positive are significantly more likely to indicate they will attend college in the future.

Table 2 - Information Sentiment and Likelihood to Attend College, 2023 Survey Results


Non-Enrollee Likelihood to Attend College

High School Likelihood to Attend College

Perceive More Positive Coverage



Perceive Less Positive Coverage



Non-Enrollees and High Schoolers experience very different streams of information. High Schoolers live at the epicenter of higher education information, with school counselors (47%), their parents (44%), college websites (37%), and teachers (34%) as the top information channels. Just a quarter (28%) say they rely on Google searches, and only 16% identify social media as an information source. Interestingly, while 8% of High Schoolers note they receive information about college from athletic coaches, 75% of those receiving information from this source indicate this information is very positive.

Non-Enrollees, on the other hand, are no longer the target for higher education communications. Their primary sources of information are Google searches (39%), college websites (34%), social media (29%), and their peers (23%). Simply put, they are on the outside looking in.

Differences Between 2022 and 2023 Research Methodology and Findings

Finally, when reviewing the differences between the research in 2022 and 2023, the biggest update was the addition of the high school cohort, to deepen the understanding of perceptions of higher education. Due to this addition, we more clearly see:

  • As mentioned above, the higher education ecosystem directs its information efforts towards high school students. They receive this information from a variety of sources and thus higher education is perceived more positively than not. Non-Enrollees, on the other hand, are required to go out and find information about higher education themselves, and the results are less positive overall, as they are more reliant on Google searches, social media and their peers.
  • The opportunity cost of attending college is more pronounced for Non-Enrollees. They have more outside concerns that must be balanced against the value of a degree, and therefore they require more supports to navigate and balance these concerns than what they believe is readily available to them.
  • Finally, while we see similar value being placed on shorter training and credential pathways in both audiences, the Non-Enrollees sees even greater value in licenses, certificates, and trade school than in 2022.

[1] The survey included nationwide bases samples of n=1000 each of Non-Enrollees and High Schoolers, as well as national oversamples of Black adults and adults who would be first-generation college graduates. The survey also included oversamples in the following states for both audiences (CA, FL, NY, OH, TN, TX, and WA) with additional Non-Enrollee oversamples in CO, IL, KY, LA, MI, and VA.