September 15, 2021

Cost is the Biggest Barrier to Post-Secondary Education; “Free College” Would Have the Biggest Impact On Students Completing/Returning to School, According to Cengage Group Report

Bar chart displaying barriers to post-secondary education according to the Cengage Group Barriers to Post-Secondary Education Report. Cost is the biggest barrier to education for current and potential students.
  • About half (49 percent) say cost of living or cost of tuition and course materials are the biggest barriers to education


  • 20 percent of current students have no idea how they will pay for their next semester


  • Almost half (46 percent) of current and potential students said free college would have the biggest impact on their decision to return to school or complete their degree


BOSTON—Sept. 15, 2021— Costs, including the cost of living and the cost of tuition and course materials, are the biggest barriers 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/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 to 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 continued to say 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.”


To learn more about how Cengage supports Education for Employment and the stigma impacting different types of post-secondary education, join the LinkedIn Live discussion: EducationLIVE: Battling the Trade Stigma on Tuesday, Sept. 21 at 12:30pm EST with Michael Hansen; Jane Oates, President of Working Nation and former U.S. Department of Labor official; and Eric Rubio, a heavy-duty truck instructor and master technician.


To download the Cengage Group Barriers to Post-Secondary Education Report, click here.


Survey Methodology:

Cengage Group’s Barriers to Post-Secondary Education Survey was conducted July 13- August 3, 2021 and polled 1,622 U.S. based respondents currently enrolled in post-secondary education, high school graduates (or equivalent, of all ages) not enrolled in post-secondary education, and/or formerly enrolled in post-secondary education but dropped out. This survey was conducted online direct-to-consumer via mobile devices.


About Cengage Group

Cengage Group, a global education technology company serving millions of learners, provides affordable, quality digital products and services that equip students with the skills and competencies needed to be job ready. For more than 100 years, we have enabled the power and joy of learning with trusted, engaging content, and now, integrated digital platforms.

We serve the higher education, workforce skills, secondary education, English language teaching and research markets worldwide. Through our scalable technology, including MindTap and Cengage Unlimited, we support all learners who seek to improve their lives and achieve their dreams through education. Visit us at