How Young Americans Who Don’t Finish College See Their Chances for Success

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Public Agenda Report for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Although when in high school the vast majority of young Americans say they want to go to college, only about four in ten have earned any post-high school credential by the time they turn 35, according to this report, which is based on a survey of 611 respondents ages 26 to 34 who have at least a high school diploma or GED.

And, the report says, many young adults who later decide they do want to pursue a college degree don’t understand what it takes to finish and pay for college. 

The first major finding from the study is that, in comparison to those young people with college degrees, people who possess only a high school graduates are less confident about their financial prospects and are much less likely to be on a stable, solid career path. Just 36 percent of those with only a high school education say it is very likely that they will be financially secure in their lifetimes. This is in comparison to 55 percent of those that are college educated expecting their lives to be economically stable.

The second result of the study showed that despite their worries about the future and mixed experiences with jobs, most high school graduates believe there are still ways to succeed at work without additional education. Fifty-seven percent of those studied say that there are “many ways to succeed in the job market without college experience.”

High school graduates are also less likely to say it’s a good idea to borrow money to go to college. The study found that 89 percent of all young adults interviewed agree that students borrow too much money to pay for college.

An additional finding of the study was that high school graduates are more skeptical than college graduates about the motives of higher education institutions. Surveys that were conducted show a growing skepticism about the way higher education institutions are run.

Four in ten high school graduates say they have given a lot of thought to going back to school, while another three in ten have given it some thought. However, most young adults that were surveyed overestimate how quickly most students complete their college programs. Additionally, seven in ten young adults do not know what the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) program is.

Researchers believe that one of the implications of the research is that there is a need to make sure that all high school students and their families know what the FAFSA is and what it does for them. The second implication from the study is for institutions and other stakeholders to take a “fresh” look at how well financial aid policies work for low-income, working students.

The interview population included 206 young adults who only have a High school diploma or GED, and 405 with at least some post-high school education.

For the full, free 49-page report click here.