A Public Agenda survey of young adults
sheds light on why so many don’t finish college.
If you don’t have as much education—if you don’t have as much training in your area—you find yourself on the outside looking in.” That’s how one young man in a Washington, D.C., focus group described his employment prospects. He had completed high school and started
college, but like roughly 6 in 10 students who begin postsecondary programs (Ruggles et al., 2010), he had never
gotten his degree.
The focus group was part of a national research project
conducted in 2011 by Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization. This study explored the
attitudes and experiences of young Americans who do not
graduate from either two-year or four-year college programs.
Its centerpiece was a national, random-sample survey of 611
young adults ages 26 to 34. 1
education credential either of their parents had was a high
school diploma. Twenty-two percent of young adults without
a college degree reported that when they were younger, their
family had “trouble getting by each month,” compared with
just 8;percent of young adults with a college degree.
Now that they have become adults, the non-college-
completing respondents’ answers to the survey suggest that
many will continue to live economically precarious lives. Just
Given their circumstances, most are not
especially optimistic about the future. Just
36;percent of respondents who have not
graduated from college consider it very
likely that they will be financially secure in
their lifetime. For college grads, the economy seems far more
promising—more than half of this group ( 55;percent) believe
it’s very likely that their future will be economically secure.
The Out-of-Reach College;Diploma
The young man quoted earlier, who saw himself as being “on
the outside looking in” in today’s job market, clearly understood that a college degree can be a valuable asset. Yet like
so many others whom we interviewed, he faced a trifecta of
mutually reinforcing hurdles. Here are the chief findings from
Most young Americans who don’t graduate from college come
from low-income, less well-educated families. Without more
education, they are likely to continue that pattern and remain
financially insecure throughout their lives.
The new Public Agenda research confirms what other
studies have shown: Most young people who don’t graduate
from college were economically and educationally disadvantaged from the get-go. A College Board study (Baum
& Ma, 2007) found that fewer than 50;percent of children
from the United States’ poorest families go on to college,
compared with 80;percent of children from the most affluent
families. In the 2011 Public Agenda survey, 51;percent of
young adults without a college degree (compared with just
28;percent of those with a degree) told us that the highest
College Awareness Gaps
Most young Americans who haven’t graduated from college
face a cluster of obstacles to continuing their schooling,
including a lack of basic knowledge about the higher education system.
The Gallup Poll has been tracking Americans’ views on the
importance of college for decades. In 1978, just 36;percent
of those polled considered going to college “very important.”
By 2010, that number had more than doubled to 75;percent
(Bushaw & Lopez, 2010). And Public Agenda research shows
that nearly all younger Americans, across all major racial
and ethnic groups, see strong advantages in getting a college
degree (Johnson, Duffett, & Ott, 2005).
Yet despite their interest in higher education, most young
people who don’t complete college are poorly informed about
some of the essential steps. For example, in the 2011 survey,
only 3 in 10 of them could identify the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), the important federal form
that all prospective college students must fill out and submit