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Report: Free College Could Woo People Back to Higher Education

The Top 5 Barriers to Post-secondary Education

The Top 5 Barriers to Post-secondary Education. Source: "Barriers to Post-Secondary Education Survey," by Cengage Group

Even as Congressional Democrats nail down the details of the "Build Back Better Act," $3.5 trillion legislation that includes, among other measures, free community college, a new survey found that the ongoing price tag of higher education is the biggest driver for people as they're making up their minds about whether or not to attend college.

Nearly half of respondents (49 percent) in a new survey reported that the cost of living and the cost of tuition and course materials were the reasons they either deferred college or canceled it. Among high school graduates, those costs were the biggest barriers, compared to other reasons they might have chosen: the status of the pandemic, the flexibility to take classes online or the time required to finish their desired programs. Among dropouts, the cost of living was the most-cited barrier; for current students, the biggest hurdle wasn't cost, but rather the need for choice in how they take classes — online or in-person — followed closely by the cost of living.

The survey was undertaken by Cengage Group, which produces curriculum for college and other education segments. The mobile survey ran in July and August and polled 1,622 U.S.-based respondents currently enrolled in college programs (40 percent), as well as high school graduates (21 percent) and former college students who had dropped out (39 percent). Two-thirds (65 percent) identified as female; two-thirds (64 percent) identified as white. Most respondents were under 31 years of age and roughly two-thirds (64 percent) had full- or part-time work.

While cost was a big concern for students, the idea of "free college" could be a motivator. Nearly one in two (46 percent) said that free college would have the biggest impact on their decision to return to school or finish their degrees. One in three said coverage of other costs linked to education (such as cost of living and course materials) would also have large impacts on finishing their programs of study.

According to Cengage's report on the results, almost 30 percent of those who have dropped out said that past student debt forgiveness would influence their return to school. Debt forgiveness could help some 10 million people decide to finish their educations, according to the researchers.

Other factors affecting student plans to return to school included the flexibility to take courses online (mentioned by 37 percent), finding "cheaper" cost of living (36 percent), getting additional grants or government help to cover costs (36 percent) and having access to cheaper course materials and textbooks (35 percent).

"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," said Michael Hansen, CEO of Cengage, in a statement. "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."

"Barriers to Post-Secondary Education Survey," which shares some of the results of the survey, is openly available on the Cengage Group website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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