62% of Americans Believe Financial Challenges Make College Inaccessible

Over half of Americans (54%) believe rising tuition is among the main reasons people choose not to pursue a degree. Still, many say college's potential rewards are worth it.

February 1, 2022 · Updated on February 1, 2022

62% of Americans Believe Financial Challenges Make College Inaccessible
Data Studies
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  • Over a quarter of Americans (28%) believe the potential benefits of college aren't worth the costs.
  • Still, over half (56%) say earning a degree improves employment potential.
  • Half believe tuition is the biggest financial barrier to attending (54%) and finishing (50%) college.

With college enrollment down again, and by an even steeper margin than last year, it's clear that shrinking enrollment isn't just a pandemic fluke. Due to the high cost of earning a college degree, many Americans may simply have sticker shock.

BestColleges commissioned a YouGov survey of 2,503 Americans aged 18 and older asking about their perception of the financial challenges faced by those who choose not to pursue a college degree and those who start but choose to drop out.

College Degree: academic pursuit of a two-year (associate) or four-year (bachelor's) degree.

This definition was provided to survey participants.

Most Americans surveyed (62%) believe the financial challenges that come with earning a degree make college inaccessible, however 56% also say that earning a college degree pays off with greater employment potential.

Despite the growing burden of tuition fees, four in 10 Americans (40%) say the potential benefits of earning a college degree are worth the cost. However, 32% neither agree nor disagree that the potential benefits outweigh the burdens, and over a quarter (28%) say that college isn't worth the sticker price.

Americans with more education are more likely to say that investing in college pays off, but a significant share of Americans at every education level have their doubts. Roughly one in three of those with some college experience (32%), one in four with a four-year degree (25%), and even more than one in five post-graduates (22%) do not believe that the cost of earning a college degree is worth the potential benefits of becoming a college graduate.

There is also a significant demographic divide when it comes to perceptions of what doors college can open for graduates. Well over half of white (59%) and Black (61%) respondents were confident that earning a college degree improves one's employment potential. Meanwhile, just under half of Hispanic respondents (49%) agreed that degrees boost employment opportunities. That share went down to 44% among respondents of all other racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Over Half of Americans Believe Tuition Is the Biggest Financial Barrier to College

The financial challenges posed by the rising cost of tuition (54%), student debt (48%), and living expenses (30%) top the list of main reasons Americans believe people are choosing not to pursue a college degree. The same top three reasons are believed to be true for those who are dropping out without graduating (cost of tuition — 50%; student debt — 34%; living expenses — 40%).

Paying for living expenses was more commonly perceived as a main reason for dropping out of college (40%) than it was for choosing not to pursue a degree at all (30%). Meanwhile, aversion to student debt figured more prominently as a perceived main reason to not pursue a degree (48%) than for dropping out (34%).

Wealthier and Younger Americans Less Likely to Believe Tuition Is Main Challenge

Higher household income is associated with higher expectations for the potential benefits of a college education. Americans in households earning $80,000 or more per year are most likely to agree that the cost of earning a degree is worth the potential benefits of becoming a college graduate (50%), compared to those from households earning less than $80,000 per year (37%).

Respondents' age also has a strong link to perception of college costs: Older generations are more likely than younger generations to believe that the rising cost of tuition is a main reason why people choose not to pursue a college degree and drop out of college. While the majority of baby boomers (born around 1946 to 1964) believe tuition hikes are keeping people from going to college (64%) and finishing college (58%), less than half of Gen Z (born after 1997) say the same (42% and 40%, respectively.)

Household income and generation had predictable influences on Americans' perception of the financial barriers to college. Survey respondents' education experience and race/ethnicity also had significant impacts on perceptions of college's costs and benefits.

Highly Educated Americans Have Gloomier Perception of College's Financial Challenges

There is a strong link between Americans' highest completed education level and their perceptions of the benefits and challenges of earning a college degree. Americans with more formal education are more likely to say that college's potential benefits are worth the costs that come with earning a degree, and that doing so improves employability. Sixty percent of those with postgraduate degrees say the potential benefits are worth the costs, and over three-quarters (77%) say a college degree boosts one's employment potential.

Less than half of Americans with a four-year college degree (47%) and even fewer who have completed some college or a two-year college degree (38%) believe higher education is worth the price. Still, a majority of those with college experience agree that a degree improves employment potential — 55% of those with some college or a two-year degree, 66% of those with a four-year degree, and 77% with a postgraduate degree.

Additionally, those who had completed higher levels of formal education were more likely than those with less formal education to believe that college costs are holding people back from higher education. Over two-thirds of postgraduate degree-holders (69%) believe that the rising costs of tuition is a main reason for choosing not to pursue a college degree. Among those who had not pursued a college degree (those with a high school diploma or less), just 46% believe tuition is a main deterrent.

Those with college experience perceive the desire to avoid student debt as one of the main reasons people choose not to pursue a college degree (51% of those with some college or two-year degrees, 57% of those with four-year degrees, and 63% of those with postgraduate degrees), while those without college experience were less likely to identify student debt as a main reason (39%).

In fact, those with a high school diploma or less were most likely to indicate believing that none of the provided potential financial challenges were main reasons people are choosing not to pursue a college degree or for dropping out of college. A full 20% of this demographic said financial challenges were not believed to be a factor in deciding against college — more than double any other education bracket.

Black and Hispanic Americans Less Likely to Believe Rising Tuition Costs Are a Deterrent

While Black and Hispanic students are more likely to come from low-income backgrounds than Asian or white students, according to the survey, white Americans are more likely to believe the rising cost of college tuition and the potential for student debt to be deterrents than Americans of other ethic backgrounds.

White Americans were significantly more likely than those who identified as Black, Hispanic, or any other race or ethnicity to believe that the rising cost of tuition is a top reason for choosing not to pursue a degree and for not finishing a degree program.

Over half of white Americans surveyed (54%) believe that not wanting to incur student debt is a main reason for not pursuing a degree, compared to 45% of Black respondents and just 33% of Hispanic respondents.

Methodology

BestColleges.com commissioned YouGov PLC to conduct the survey. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov PLC. The total sample size was 2,503 adults. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all U.S. adults (age 18+). Fieldwork was undertaken on Jan. 12-14, 2022. The survey was carried out online and meets rigorous quality standards.