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Why Students Are Opting Out of College

Episode 180

January 23, 2024 33 minutes


EAB’s Paul-Anne Robb and Brian Schueler unpack the data from a new survey of college-aged non-consumers. One of the key findings is that while price matters, perceptions of high cost may be at odds with the actual cost of attendance once you factor in grants, scholarships, and other institutional “discounts.” Paul-Anne and Brian also share tips on more effective ways to communicate with prospective students on price and other potential objections.



0:00:11.9 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today we examine why a growing number of high school graduates have decided to opt out of college. Our experts dig into what’s driving that trend. And spoiler alert, cost is an issue, but perhaps not in the way you might think. Give these folks a listen and enjoy.


0:00:37.9 Paul-Anne Robb: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Paul-Anne Robb, and I’m a research analyst here. I’m excited to be on the podcast today to talk about the phenomenon of declining college-going rates. First, I wanna shout out my team, who I had the pleasure of working on this research with Cameron Jessop, Vashae Dixon, and Brian Schueler, who’s actually joining me today. Brian, would you mind introducing yourself and telling us a little bit about your role at EAB.

0:01:04.9 Brian Schueler: Hey, Paul-Anne. Sure. Yeah, glad to be here with you today. Ms. Paul-Anne, you mentioned, my name’s Brian Schueler, and I’m a director here in our research department at EAB. I focus mainly on trying to understand the market dynamics for our undergraduate and graduate enrollment spaces so that we can, as a firm, better help our partners set a sustainable enrollment strategy in this time that is pretty challenging when it comes to thinking about enrollment and bringing in students for a lot of our partners.

0:01:37.9 PR: Awesome. Thanks Brian, for sharing a little bit about yourself and your research interests. Let’s just jump in here and provide some context around this problem, why it’s important to have these conversations, and why we decided to tackle this research. So, to start could you answer how we’re defining non-consumption and what makes that stand out?

0:01:57.9 BS: Yeah, happy to chat on that front. And I guess I’ll start a little bit. Let’s go back to 2017, ’16, when really the research topic around what’s going on in enrollment was demographic decline. There was a lot of great research on that front that was talking and highlighting how as we approach 2025, 2026, we were going to start seeing this demographic decline previously called the demographic cliff. And as a result, a lot of our partners started to look and say, okay, let’s explore places that are growing. Let’s try and enroll more students and invest more in going towards states and areas that have rapid demographic growth, are seeing a lot of individuals, either moving there or higher birth rates.

0:02:47.9 BS: The problem is, is that these approaches didn’t seem to pan out very well. Now one reason might be it’s harder to recruit farther from home. That’s one of the elements of just recruiting students. It’s easier closer to your main markets, but actually that’s not the whole explanation there. We actually found that some of these places that had growing populations weren’t producing as many students as we would expect. A good example of this is Texas. We’ve heard a lot of folks say, “Oh, we’re gonna send a recruiter down to Texas to try and recruit a few more students.” Super attractive area, because from 2010 to 2020, they saw about 75,000 additional 18-year-olds every year just due to that demographic growth. That’s a huge number of students. But when we looked at the data and said, okay, well how many more… How many of those students are ending up enrolling? Actually, it wasn’t a growth at all.

0:03:45.7 BS: From Texas between this period of time, the number of first-time enrollments who were in Texas and ended up going anywhere actually declined by 10,000 students per year. So we’re talking depending on the back of the envelope math, up to 70 plus thousand students who are just missing, where did they go? And that’s only from Texas. There’s a lot of other states that are seeing these similar trends as well. And so we started to dig in here and trying to understand like, where are these students going? Why aren’t they enrolling in school? Why aren’t these… In these places, these demographic dividends, not necessarily materializing? What we found is that it’s not just a pandemic-era phenomenon, it’s something that the pandemic increased, but it’s a trend that’s going on at least since 2010, 2012. And so as we’ve dug in further, we’re kind of calling this non-consumption to try and emphasize what’s changed.

0:04:47.9 BS: I think prior to this, a lot of us felt like consumption of Higher Ed, going to Higher Ed was the default option. If you didn’t make a class as an institution, if you were seeing fewer students than you anticipated, your first question was gonna be who took them? Did one of our partners end up changing something about their strategy? Or not one of our partners, but one of our competitors to change something about their strategy to pull in more of the students who typically would go to me. But increasingly that’s not the case. What we are seeing is that the competitor isn’t another higher education institution, but it’s the decision to go or not go to college overall. And so calling this non-consumption or labeling this phenomenon, non-consumption, I think is our effort to try and think about this is actually that choice of going to college at all. And thinking about what’s really changed over this past decade or so. That’s kinda where we’re sitting and I think how we came to learning about non-consumption. But Paul-Anne, you’ve worked in Higher Ed before you joined EAB on the enrollment side of the house. And of course, as part of this research effort, we’ve connected with a lot of leaders to hear about what they’re seeing, what they’re sensing going on on the ground. I’d love to get a sense, what’s your read on how many of our colleagues, how are they experiencing or recognizing this on the ground?

0:06:18.9 PR: Yeah, Brian, I’m glad you asked. To give our listeners context, prior to EAB I worked in higher education and spent some time in admissions. While there, I always sort of heard about the ominous demographic cliff, right? But never once did we think it was gonna be a separate thing that would impact enrollment this much as the years went on. And so even while I was transitioning from that position, I was hearing how we need to expand our territories. We need to recruit elsewhere get this going so we can make up for what we would lose. But never did we think that there was gonna be something else that would come up, as well.

0:07:00.9 PR: And so on the calls with these enrollment leaders, we were getting a sense that they knew a little bit about students not wanting to go to college, but it wasn’t really the thing that was as talked about as much as the demographic cliff. But we did try and ask them, okay, well here’s what we’ve found and what we think is happening. And so we got a sense of what they were thinking students were doing instead of maybe going to college. And we heard a lot of stuff about maybe it’s the hustle culture. And so students are finding ways to make their own money, getting involved in some entrepreneurship endeavors, and maybe going to work in some other areas that were paying them more than they possibly could’ve imagined getting that much money as a high school student or even if they graduated college. So we were hearing a lot about those big-name warehouses that offer a certain amount of hours.

0:08:02.9 BS: Like an Amazon, something like that.

0:08:03.9 PR: Like an Amazon. Exactly. And they’ll get this amount of money and it’s like, okay, if you are pocketing that money, you’re not paying rent. It’s like, wow, I kind of have a little dollars on me. And then there were some other folks who were kind of taking it in the direction towards the more content creation side. So those who are doing Twitch streaming.

0:08:29.9 BS: Twitch, what is, so it’s Twitch.

0:08:30.9 PR: Yeah, [laughter] That’s a good question. So I’m barely understanding it myself, but Twitch is a video game streaming platform. So usually how people get famous or start to make revenue on Twitch is that they’re streaming them playing their video games and people tune in and they watch and they send them gifts and money. And it’s a whole different side of things that I don’t think anyone could have imagined would be something today. And so we see Twitch streaming and content creating on the rise, and people are able to consume a lot of this stuff because we have a smartphone in our hands. So we’re able to see that all the time. And so students can see that as well. But also there’s just some general sense of apathy, students are just not interested in higher education. So there’s a lot of different factors at play, but again, I think the most common thing that we heard, which has come up across the years is the speculation that college is just too expensive, right?

0:09:40.9 PR: And so we hear that a lot. That’s probably one of the first things that these enrollment leaders would say, “The cost, the cost, the cost.” That’s always coming up. And this is an area where I think our research took a bit of a surprising turn, because that’s something we wanted to explore and really get in and see if it’s actually cost that’s striving it. So I know Brian, you did a little bit of research around that, so if you can explain some more about why we may be skeptical that non-consumption is just the story about affordability and cost.

0:10:12.9 BS: Yeah. Yeah. And it was one of those things where I feel like we’d just sort of taken for granted that, okay, we’ve heard from everyone, “High Ed is too expensive,” and we’re seeing people not going to college as much. And so it’s like, must be a cost story. There we go. Open shut, like research project finished. [chuckle] didn’t actually turn out to be what we saw. When we looked in and started digging parts of the story of it being a cost-driven or the non-consumption being driven by cost, parts of that story started adding up. One, the most affordable institutions were the ones that saw the greatest declines.

0:10:53.9 BS: You think about community colleges seeing the biggest enrollment declines, it actually doesn’t even stop there though, when we start breaking it down by different segments and sectors. We also saw that there really wasn’t what we would expect, a bonus for being more affordable or being a lower-cost institution. In fact, it was the opposite. Also, cost hasn’t actually increased dramatically over this period of time. Even though we’ve seen non-consumption increase over this past decade, we haven’t seen costs increase at that same level. They’ve stayed about similar when we start looking at the net price that students would pay. And the biggest thing that was a surprise to me is that actually this increase in non-consumption broadly comes from higher access, higher income households, not lower-income households. The growth’s coming from higher-income folks.

0:11:45.9 PR: Okay. Can you back up for a second there? So you’re saying that non-consumers are mostly coming from higher-income families?

0:11:53.9 BS: Yeah. So, and that was a… I enjoy diving into the data and I think this is a surprising finding. I’ll talk a little bit about the data first and then sort of our, I would say a Moreton nuanced interpretation of it. So we looked at non-consumers, so those folks who graduated from high school, didn’t go to college, and we looked at their family income. So what family income situation did they come from? And over this period of time, when we looked at those individuals who came from households with incomes less than a 100k per year, that number actually decreased over time. So we saw fewer non-consumers over time from those populations. We adjusted for inflation as well. So we’re not seeing an inflation effect here. But over that same period, we actually saw the number of non-consumers coming from households with incomes above a 100k a year increased pretty dramatically, more than double. And so that growth in non-consumption is really driven by these higher-income populations. Now, I don’t want our listeners to think, “Okay, it’s just a high-income problem.

0:13:03.9 BS: In the American community survey data, we look at, an income is a very broad brush. It’s not the only barrier. It’s a good proxy though for a lot of different barriers. I think a better way to interpret this finding, is one, there’s still a lot of individuals who are coming from lower-income, from lower-access populations. Although that group shrank a little bit, it’s still a big chunk. And that represents, I think, a broader element of access to higher education. We haven’t solved that yet. That’s still really important to address and be working on. However, what we now have is kind of a new thing. It’s this second group of non-consumer that hasn’t been as much of the challenge before. And this is a group that has access to Higher Ed, that has a lot of that cultural capital to make it and go to college if they would want. The difference is that they’re just not interested in going to college. This is a group that is not lacking access, but instead lacking interest in college. And that’s where this growth is really coming from.

0:14:10.9 PR: Yeah, that is super interesting and was honestly is very surprising to me because I feel I’ve always been in the school of thought that it was just an access barrier for students who decided not to go to college. Right? And just based on my own experiences and how the college going culture was for me, it was kind of difficult to imagine that people just didn’t wanna go to college without there being some great big reason behind this. And so it was a challenging… It was challenging for me to kind of get out of that school of thought and also intrigue me in this project to try and understand this other group of non-consumers. And it was hard to get a sense of what they were thinking from just the literature because there wasn’t a lot out there on this population. It seemed like the public was still viewing college favorably. But at the same time, college A students weren’t having an ounce of interest. So I wasn’t really understanding how those two things were true at the same time. Right? But, I think in this project what we did was you were able to figure out a really cool way for us to hear directly from these students. And your brain was working on overtime. So can you just share [laughter] a little bit about what brought you to this, decision to hear from non-consumers directly?

0:15:39.9 BS: Well, that’s nice of you to put that on me. Really, [laughter] it was all, as we’re working through this, trying to figure out, okay, this is a group that’s not as heard from. They don’t show up as much in the literature, partly ’cause they’re new. And so I think as we were thinking through those challenges, we figured, “Why don’t we just go to the non-consumer? Let’s go chat with them.” It’s not that easy. But we went through and found a a partner who was able to help us survey a large population of non-consumers. We actually did this asynchronous survey where we were able to send out questions and they answered them on their phones. Both just answering regular traditional type survey questions, but also providing video responses to questions. So something we were able to kinda get a bit more of their stream of consciousness and thoughts about why, what was their college search process like? What led them to decide against college? What they think about going back? Questions like that. One of the things that… As we were going through these, I know I looked through some of ’em. I know you looked through a lot of these videos that we got back from these non-consumers that were really pretty interesting. I love that you could pull a couple things out from those, what was that like? What did you hear? What were some of the things that you’d love to share with our listeners?

0:17:10.9 PR: Sure. Yeah. That was definitely an exciting piece of this project, was getting to talk directly to college-age non-consumers, especially since it hasn’t been done so often. So I was glad to be a part of this cutting-edge research. But I didn’t know what to expect. I shouldn’t have went in with any expectations, but of course we’ve been talking to enrollment leaders, so we’re kind of getting used to a certain style of conversation.

0:17:40.9 BS: We get on Zoom and it’s a pretty formal conversation.

0:17:42.9 PR: Right. It’s very formal, they’re there, they’re either wearing their collar shirts or a nice blouse or they have their colleges up on the backgrounds, things like that. And just to set the scene, imagine logging into this platform and I’m scrolling through and I’m seeing just college-age students, right? Some of them, they’re in their rooms, they’re at the gym, they’re doing just other things. And it’s like, okay, well I can see that we’re gonna get some unfiltered, straight to the point, stream-of-consciousness things. And so clicking on one of these videos, there’s a young lady and she’s in her room, on her bed, just talking directly to the phone. And it’s kind of like she’s just having a conversation with her bestie. And so…

0:18:30.1 BS: Her bestie Paul-Anne, so.

0:18:32.0 PR: Exactly. And so we’re getting a lot of information from this. And they’re telling us their, like I said, their unfiltered thoughts on why they decided not to go to college, and what were the influences in that? But I think what we realized was a lot of the times when they were talking about these influences, they had no real recollection of why they decided not to go. It was just that they’ve kind of just seen and heard things which may have influenced their decision over time. And we couldn’t really get a sense of something concrete to be like, okay, yeah. This is what was going on.

0:19:18.5 BS: So kind of people saying… I know we saw a few of these students who would say, “Oh, like I applied, and then I looked at it and didn’t think it was for me,” but we saw a good chunk where it was like students who were saying, “I just really never got started, ’cause I’ve always heard it’s too expensive. And I don’t… I think it would be bad.” Not really necessarily grabbing one specific thing, right?

0:19:45.3 PR: That’s exactly it. And it’s like one of our participants did actually say they’ve just seen and heard things. And so we’re like, okay, that’s scratching our brains a little bit, but I get it because there’s always news headlines around the cost of college rising at alarming rates and the debt is being collected and everything, and the ROI isn’t as good as in the past. And so now it’s like additionally, prospects are able to see and hear about more people who made decisions not to go to college based on some of that alarming news and have become somewhat successful through the rise of social media and other things. Before, like prior to being able to see these folks doing their day-to-day, there wasn’t an easy opportunity to see that. I don’t know, Jamie from down the street bought some vending machines and put them in different places and now is making a lot of money. They’re a 19-year-old making this amount of money with no college degree.

0:20:48.9 BS: So they’re seeing this on social media or on…

0:20:50.0 PR: Exactly.

0:20:51.0 BS: Probably on Twitch. ’cause that’s video games, I guess, but Instagram or.

0:20:57.6 PR: Exactly that. And so it’s not necessarily that there’s a direct message to not go to college, but there’s a lot of these subtle messagings and this little nuance that’s like, “Oh, there’s other things out there than college and there’s other things that you could possibly can do without going to college and making money.” But I don’t think what’s shown is the hard part of that. So, what it takes to do a lot of these things, the people that tried and maybe didn’t succeed as much. That stuff is a little bit more difficult to find. But honestly, once you start going through these videos and if you like, see how to get a six-figure job with no experience, the videos just keep coming. They just keep coming. And I, myself, I’ve gotten lost in a lot of these videos too.

0:21:54.9 PR: How to make this amount of money as a content creator. I have a phone, I have a tripod, I can set my stuff up and start talking to the camera. And it’s just really compelling stuff. And that message is getting disseminated out to the larger population. And so it can be very easy to think that I can do something like that as well. And everyone now is extremely transparent on what they may be making from a lot of these endeavors. And so it’s very enticing to someone to see this happening in real-time, in ways that they could possibly do this without four years of college.

0:22:39.2 BS: And just to be clear, we’re not saying that, “Oh, now you can go and become a content creator and make tons of money,” right?

0:22:45.3 PR: Yeah. We’re not saying that.

0:22:49.4 BS: But what we are saying is that these students are hearing and seeing that. They’re seeing the top 0.01% of social media creators who did go and make it big and going, “Oh, here’s all these examples of people who made a lot of money without a college degree.” Is that kind of what you’re sensing and feeling is, is what’s happening here?

0:23:11.6 PR: Exactly. Is exactly that. And like I said, I get lost at it too. I’m like, “If I was 18 making this decision again, I would definitely be a little bit influenced by all of the stuff that I would be seeing.”

0:23:26.3 BS: All these examples of other pathways.

0:23:29.2 PR: Exactly.

0:23:30.2 BS: You mentioned though, as well, like, you keep seeing and seeing these videos. And could you tell me a little bit about how that… Like behind the scenes, why is it that as you started to, for work looking through social media and exploring some of these videos, you kept seeing more and more of them?

0:23:48.9 PR: Yeah. Just to add, that was definitely for work. I was scrolling social media for work. But it’s something with the way that these apps recommend videos to you. So it’s like their recommendation engine. If the app has that and you start looking at videos of a certain topic, and you do that consistently, you’ll start to see more content without even searching. You’ll just start to see more content around that topic. And so once you get started, it’s hard to stop. I once went down a rabbit hole of bread making. And so it’s like one of those things where it’s like, “Okay, if I am in it, I’ll see it consistently over and over and over again.” And so it’s just that can really change or alter how you may see something. And then not inherently negative, right? It’s just a matter of, “Okay, there’s this alternative and I’m also hearing all this stuff about cost and debt.” And so the two things can easily get conflated.

0:24:54.1 BS: So certainly like, not necessarily something negative if you’re getting video after video of about sourdough starter. But like for our partners, we’ve got a lot of students who’ve already received, or prospective students who’ve received information about here’s these alternatives, Here’s these other things you might be able to do. They’re hearing about the cost of college, and now they’re getting, like, as they start exploring that and looking through that, they’re getting more and more and more content that’s negative, that has questions that’s… Maybe not necessarily negative, but at least pushing it back against college, helping drive some of this non-consumption effect.

0:25:34.6 PR: That’s correct.

0:25:35.9 BS: Yeah. So what do we do? I guess we should probably think about how do we as… Or how should our partners approach and think about this? I guess if I can start out here a little bit. One is we’d love for folks to join and learn more about this research. We have some upcoming research round tables that we’ll be hosting over the next few months. And happy to dive in further to this research with our partners as well. One of the areas too that I think we talked about is currently the… You know, these are students who are not really engaging with the existing enrollment pipelines. They’re sort of out of it, they’re seeing… I think that’s what we were hearing a lot from the surveys is students didn’t seem to be starting that journey or really engaging.

0:26:32.7 BS: And so part of our approach and recommendation is to start by adapting the enrollment funnel to better reach and engage these students. So we’ve broken this out into kind of three chunks. The first part is about reaching, how do you get in front of uninterested students who aren’t opting into the funnel? There’s a few ways that we identified that we’re excited about. One of those is to collaborate with other institutions so that when you do high school visits, you’re able to get in front of a larger population of students, sometimes including students who might not have necessarily opted into those visits, or opted in if it was just come chat with a counselor from one institution. Also engagement, these are students who are skeptical, who need a little more warming, a little more work to stay engaged in the funnel.

0:27:26.8 BS: And so ways to identify more resources so that you have counselors or individuals who can be working with these students, continuing to have those conversations with them. Talking with them about, “Hey, here’s how we can make this work for you financially.” And then finally, re-engagement. One of the areas we looked at was there’s a fair number of these non-consumers who actually have been in an enrollment funnel in one way or another, but they drop out at the end. They melt during the summer or end up deciding they’re not able to go. We’d love to prevent that stopping out the… Not the stopping out, but the melting in the summer. But even after that, what are we doing to catch those folks who melted? What are we doing to reconnect with those individuals and re-recruit them? And so part of adapting and thinking about that, adapting that enrollment funnel is really across those three areas. And we’ve got some ways to address that and support in that research that we’d love for folks to join and connect with us about.

0:28:32.8 PR: Yeah. Okay. That’s a great, some great takeaways. I wanna ask, what can folks do once they do get in front of these students or these non-consumers? Because a lot of them, sometimes they’re just not gonna college. Some of them are working, some of them are just participating in the gig economy, so they may be a little bit interested, but just not right now. So what can our colleagues or our partners do to get in front of these students and wow them?

0:29:09.7 BS: Yeah, so I think in terms of getting in front of these folks, we talked to some of our partners who are really taking a different approach to that experience, really thinking about it as how do we shape the memories that these prospects have? And research that we’ve looked at across, inside and outside of Higher Ed suggests that actually changing behavior requires creating much more of these positive, unique memories. And so as part of the research that we’ve been developing, and some of the workshops we’re pulling out from this is actually helping our partners take really wow moments that already exist on their campus. These really powerful changing and formative moments that we already have as higher education, that actually higher education’s pretty good at, but for our existing students and taking that and bring that out for prospective students. How do we bring that into our enrollment funnel so that we can help shift those behaviors, help make those changes and help these prospects see, “Wow, college is a place for me, college is a place where I could gain a lot, benefit a lot, and it could help me throughout my life.”

0:30:25.0 PR: Okay. Got you. So, kind of taking those moments that really make your college experience special and putting them on the front end so that prospective students can see the magic of college.

0:30:37.9 BS: Yes. Yeah. Hoping to both get in front of them. And then also, once we get in front of these prospects, creating an environment and a conversion experience that helps bring them in. So that’s what we’re hoping will be… Our partners can take away and implement, and we think we’ll do a great job of helping these students who’ve started moving away from college and help bring them back.

0:31:04.0 PR: Awesome.

0:31:06.4 BS: Cool. Awesome. And of course, for all those listening, we’ve touched on some of this research here, but we would love to talk about it in greater depth with you all, if you’re a member or a partner of EAB, or maybe someone who hasn’t worked with EAB before, please reach out. We’ve got some upcoming round tables and meetings where we’re going to dive into this research and could potentially share even more deeply about this research and information. Love to hear from you if you have further questions. Well, Paul-Anne, I think as you’ve found out, I enjoy talking about this quite a bit. Could talk for a long time on some of this research. And thank you for joining me on this, but wanna wrap it up here. Thanks so much for the research that we’ve done here, and I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with us.

0:31:57.8 PR: Yeah, Brian, as well, super exciting stuff. Could also talk for hours on this. But we’ll go ahead and let our listeners get back to their daily tasks. So thank you for having us, and goodbye.

0:32:12.4 BS: Thank you all for listening.


0:32:18.8 S1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when we share details on a relatively new resource for high school students that helps ease the burden of the college exploration and application process. Until next week, thank you for your time.


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