September 28, 2021

Is the Pandemic to Blame for Fall Enrollment Numbers? Digging in on New Research on Barriers to Post-Secondary Ed

graph showing top 5 barriers to education with cost of living and textbooks being the biggest barriers.

By: Fernando Bleichmar, Executive Vice President and General Manager of U.S. Higher Education, Cengage Group

We’re still awaiting the first official fall 2021 college enrollment numbers, however, we have some early insight into the “why” behind student enrollment in new research on the Barriers to Post-Secondary Education by Cengage Group.

Over the summer, our team surveyed more than 1,600 current students (across 2yr, 4yr and technical colleges), recent high school graduates as well as adults who had dropped out of post-secondary education to understand why they do or don’t enroll in college, what their concerns are and what would have the biggest impacting on them ultimately completing their education.

Impact of the Pandemic on Enrollment

While the pandemic has been blamed for much of the fall-off in enrollments in the community college space, it’s likely the pandemic’s exacerbation of challenges that already existed – especially cost (i.e. the cost of tuition, materials and living for students) that is really to blame. Our research showed that half (49 percent) of current and potential students say the biggest barrier to enrollment is cost. In fact, 25% of community college students say they don’t know how they will pay for their next semester.  

The status of the COVID pandemic and vaccination rates was also a common barrier, but no more so than the “flexibility to take courses online” or the “time required to complete a program.” It also means that once the pandemic recedes, enrollment numbers will still be impacted by other barriers and may not “bounce back.”

Given that cost is still the biggest hurdle, it’s not surprisingly that current and potential students say “free college” would have the single biggest impact on them finishing or returning to post-secondary education – interesting insight as legislators currently debate how best to expand access to post-secondary education.

How Gender Factors In

One enrollment story that has received quite a bit of attention from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Atlantic and others is the steady drop in male college enrollments. In our research, we also found differences in how men and women viewed education. While cost was still the number one barrier across genders, men also question the value of post-secondary education. In fact, men were more likely than women to cite the following as barriers:

  • Time required to complete my desired program/degree
  • Time away from work
  • Feeling like a post-secondary degree is not worth the investment (i.e., time, money) to continue
  • Feeling like my program does not provide the skills needed for employment

While no single solution may exist to boost male enrollments, opportunities for affordable, flexible, shorter time-to-credential progams with direct workforce relevance may likely be appealing to this audience.

Beyond Cost Barriers, Students want Flexibility

While costs are an immediate barrier to entry, once enrolled students face multiple and ongoing barriers to learning. Today’s post-secondary students are juggling a lot – they’re older, many are working full-time, have families to care for – and may not have the time needed to commit to a 2- or 4-year program.  Students need their education to fit into their busy lives, they need flexibility. After costs, not surprisingly, the “status of the pandemic,” “flexibility to take courses online” and “time to a degree” all tied as the next biggest barriers current and potential students face.

In fact, when asking current students specifically what would have the greatest impact on them completing their degree, nearly 4 in 10 (39 percent) said the flexibility to take courses online. As institutions think about what learning models to invest in long-term, it’s a clear time and again that students want flexibility – it may be the reason they graduate or not. Expanding resources for online learning is a no-brainer for institutions to increase access and remove barriers.

Bigger Implications for the Workforce and the Economy

Affordability challenges have existed in higher education for years which has led to an ever-widening skills gap. Unfortunately, that gap is more apparent now, and there are long term implications for the workforce and the economy.

Many companies are already struggling to fill open positions, making it challenging for wide-scale initiatives to successfully revitalize the economy and create jobs - there are just not enough qualified workers to fill these new roles. If adults continued to be gated from post-secondary education because of costs and inflexible learning models, the skills gap that exists will only widen.

Breaking Down Barriers

No matter what this Fall’s official enrollment figures suggest, students face many barriers to post-secondary education. Even as we learn to manage and live with the pandemic, these barriers won’t go away on their own and they won’t be solved by one-off initiatives. Access to affordable, quality education impacts all industries and all parts of life, and therefore requires the collective commitment and coming together of the entire ecosystem – government, academic institutions, faculty, edtech partners – to embrace this challenge head on.

The research is very clear on the value of education for individual and societal growth.  The challenge is how to make it more affordable, flexible, and valuable to help students and institutions succeed and build a strong, resilient workforce.


This article was originally published on LinkedIn.