A new study examines individuals who have college credits but are no longer attending college to identify why they stopped attending and what motivates them to re-engage.

The study, conducted by University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) and StraighterLine, targeted adult learners 20-34 years of age and evaluated their responses across generations. The study is based on 1,021 respondents.

“So many people start college and never finish. Through this study, we wanted to answer four main questions: Who leaves college? Why do they leave? Who comes back? How do we get them back?” StraighterLine’s Chief Learning Officer Dr. Amy Smith said. “What we see from our research is Gen Z and Millennials leave school for different reasons, but the reason they return is the same — to reach a personal goal.”

In terms of who are disengaged learners, the study found that more than half of the respondents were employed full-time and only 9 percent were unemployed and overwhelmingly they worked in the retail and consumer durables industry and food and beverage industry.

“Another key takeaway is the majority of disengaged learners are working adults that make $50,000 or less, so they are working on pretty tight budgets,” Smith said. “This is a significant factor that colleges and universities need to think about when re-engaging students.”

Additionally, women made up the majority of students who have stopped out. However, according to new research that may largely have to do with the fact that women make up the majority of college students. That said, researchers believe understanding the gender gap in “stopped out” students is key to re-engaging women.

“Men and women do not see higher education the same way. They think differently about career goals, tuition, personal obligations, and existing work responsibilities,” Smith said. “In healthcare you can’t study male cancer and apply it to females. Likewise, you can’t get men and women to re-engage in higher education using the same messaging and tactics.”

In terms of fields of study with the most “stopped out” students, 18 percent of respondents were studying business, 14 percent studied healthcare, 9 percent were in the arts, and 7 percent were studying computer science or education.

Given the economic struggles students have faced during the pandemic, the study unsurprisingly found that most students stopped attending classes due to financial reasons. Overall, 42 percent of respondents cited financial reasons for stopping out of higher education. However, researchers found that when examining reasons by generation and gender, those priorities began to shift. Thirty-two percent of students say they left college for family or personal commitments and this was more prevalent among mid-millennials.

“Why are students leaving? The overall finding across the board was that students left school for financial reasons,” Smith said. “One interesting point is this study was conducted during Covid-19, but loss of job was not a variable. So, students are leaving for financial reasons, but not because they aren’t working.”

Addressing the generational differences, Smith said, “Not surprisingly, family commitments were very important to mid-millennials. Many are working parents who had to make the choice between going to school or providing for their family. Gen Z, on the other hand, cares more about a school being the right fit for them, and they are willing to pay for it.”

Pivoting to how colleges can re-engage “stopped out” students, researchers asked students what their institutions could have done to keep them in classes:

  • 70 percent of students said institutions could provide certificates for credits earned;
  • 62 percent of students said institutions could provide courses at lower prices;
  • 58 percent of students said institutions could provide workshops to address struggles;
  • 55 percent of students said institutions could provide counseling; and
  • 46 percent of students said institutions could provide concierge services to help.

“It is important to look at what are the actionable tactics that can make an impact on a student’s retention,” Smith said. “But keep in mind what works for one student, might not work for another.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs