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Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation conduct study on declining college enrollment, linked to economic demands and return on investment


College Advising and Career Counseling
College Advising and Career Counseling

In 2022, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation commissioned a study to understand better what is driving enrollment decline in 2-year and 4-year colleges. The research was focused on high school graduates, ages 18-30, who had either chosen not to attend college or had dropped out of a college program. This week's insights summarize some critical findings about the perceived value of higher education and the overall return on investment.


"Has there been a change in value perceptions given social/political/economic forces?"

The study explored several key questions that included the following: 1) Is this audience looking at college options in the same way as they did last year? 2) Has there been a change in value perceptions given social/political/economic forces? 3) What type of learning does this audience value and why? 4) What is the education journey like, and where does the system lose people? 5) What solutions/policy proposals are appealing?


The first interesting observation in the study was the top five reasons students believe higher education is beneficial. They noted earning more money (71%), getting a better job or promotion (69%), getting training for a specific career (65%), having more job security (65%), and gaining knowledge and appreciation of ideas (65%). As history has demonstrated, these reasons are practical and tangential to social mobility in the United States.


These reasons also clarify the perceived value of higher education, which is still relevant today. As the economic system has revolutionized learning, working, and living in our society, a degree has been seen as a type of "financial security" measure to guarantee income for life after college. That sentiment has faced erosion in the recent decade with rising prices for the cost of living, a post-pandemic environment, and a shifting job market that does not offer the same stability it once did.


The second observation that represents the times we are currently navigating is reflected in the declining importance of a 2-year or 4-year degree. A 4-year bachelor's degree has fallen to middle-level importance (72% for high school students and 57% for non-enrolled adults), with on-the-job training (83% for High School students and 77% of non-enrolled adults) ranking the highest for importance. This is representative of the worry and concern most young adults have about the ability to survive and thrive in the current economy. Most young adults can only afford to attend school with full-time or part-time employment while in school.


"This is representative of the worry and concern most young adults have about the ability to survive and thrive in the current economy. Most young adults can only afford to attend school with full-time or part-time employment while in school."

Where do we lose students in the college matriculation funnel? The report summarizes differences among high school students and non-enrolled adults:

  • High school students feel prepared during High School but feel less confident and need more assistance navigating how to pay for college. Thus, their academic experience is affected during college by financial worry and concerns about affordability.

  • Non-enrolled adults feel the high school system failed them in some aspect, which does not support learning about college applications and the dreaded financial aid process. Thus, they are significantly less prepared for their financial and academic responsibilities.


Overall, college experiences and adjacent opportunities are still perceived as positive. However, students and their families need help navigating the admissions industrial complex, and the report noted characteristics such as debt relief, expert help with financing, and expert assistance designing a high school and college experience. These aspects help put students on the path to a career and alleviate uncertainty while ensuring a return on investment. This timely report is necessary to continue reshaping the needs of 21st-century students in higher education.

 

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Rebuttals are always welcome,


Jade M. Felder

@felderofficial - X

 

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