Research by Public Agenda, Prepared for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Implications and questions—some specific and actionable, some wide-ranging and long-term

In politics, surveys are typically conducted to find out what voters want, what worries them, and how well they think the President, Congress, and other key decision makers are doing. But in this instance, the intent (and we hope the usefulness) of the research is to help leaders in government, higher education, business, youth development, and philanthropy fashion better and more workable solutions. If policymakers have a better understanding of the experiences and perspectives of young adults in the workforce, they are more likely to establish policies and programs that are realistic and responsive. If policymakers have a clearer grasp of how these young people see the world, they are more likely to develop solutions that work.

Some of the implications emerging from the research are quite specific. We believe that the research suggests a need for progress in two areas:

  • Making sure all high school students and their families understand what the FAFSA can do for them. If 72 percent of high school graduates can’t give even a general definition of it, then they’re not likely to take advantage of it, and this gap in knowledge severely limits their options. Basically, our whole system of financial aid is not available to them until they complete the FAFSA form. This is a must.
  • Taking a fresh look at how well financial aid policies and programs work for low-income, working students.

This study and two others we have completed for the Gates Foundation (available at offer compelling evidence that the financial aid system does not work well for some young people, especially those who perhaps need it most. Not knowing what the FAFSA is and why you need to complete it is only the most specific example. Others include:

  • They aren’t accessing the systems already in place. Those who don’t finish college are substantially less likely to take advantage of nearly every form of financial aid—grants, loans, scholarships, etc. They are also more likely to be low income and less likely to get help from family. Why isn’t the system working for them? What’s causing the discrepancy here?
  • They don’t see full-time study as an option. The vast majority of young people who leave college without completing their degrees have thought about returning to school, but they face a series of hurdles. Public Agenda’s earlier research, With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them, shows that many feel stymied because they have to work to support themselves and their families and because they worry about taking out education loans. They say that the one change that would help them most is having more financial aid available for part-time students. Rightly or wrongly, most seem to assume that unless they can go to school full time, there’s little help available to them.
  • Many find the financial aid system confusing. Young people who start college but don’t finish are more likely to say the information and materials relating to financial aid are hard to understand, and they’re more likely to have taken out a loan without discussing it with a counselor. Later many regret their decision and sour on the idea of going back to school unless they can pay the full freight up front.
  • They’re more skeptical about borrowing. Young people without degrees are more skeptical about whether it’s worth it to borrow money for college. For years, the financial aid system has operated on the assumptions that people see borrowing for college as a good investment and that they’re willing to do it. This study suggests that this compact is being questioned, at least in the current economic environment and especially by lower-income students. If this shift in thinking persists, there will be a mismatch between the assumptions of the financial aid system and what students and families believe is good for them.
  • They’re not getting the kind of advice they deserve. Most young people—whether they complete college or not—say the high school counseling system did not provide the kind of help and advice they need and want.

Some words of warning for higher education as a whole

This research also suggests that leaders in higher education may need to address some overarching and emerging concerns among young adults, especially young workers without degrees who could probably benefit from returning to school. On the whole, this group of young Americans is less knowledgeable about higher education generally and more skeptical of the motives of those who run it. Along with a series of Public Agenda studies of the general public, these findings show a growing concern among Americans broadly that colleges and universities are more focused on their bottom lines than they are on educating their students. But these concerns are more common among young adults aged 26–34, and they’re even more prevalent among those who only hold a high school diploma.

Left to fester, these concerns could derail the cooperation between individuals and institutions that is needed for more young people to go further in school. There are, however, some promising initiatives by higher education systems and institutions to open new channels of communication. For example, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has partnered with Public Agenda and the Lumina Foundation on research and student engagement work aimed at improving degree completion. The Pathways Project is already providing higher education planners in Texas with specific, practical guidance that they can use to improve their programs and to help more of their students succeed.

What do we mean by college and what happens to Americans who don’t go?

Finally, this study raises an important set of questions for policymakers and professionals—questions that have been circling beneath the surface for the last several years as the emphasis on college completion has heated up: What do we mean by college? Do we mean a four-year degree only? Or should the definition include two-year degrees as well as shorter-term professional certificates? As a society, what do we owe to those who, for whatever reason, do not or cannot complete some form of college? Do we owe them anything? Is it time to think about alternative paths that could help them improve their prospects? And given their real-life situations, how can we make these alternative paths genuinely viable for them?