The desire to go to school isn’t always enough to make it happen. For many, a multitude of factors keeps them from pursuing higher education and obtaining a degree. Insufficient funds, conflicting priorities, and difficulty navigating the application process are a few of the reasons people don’t continue their education. Understanding the nuances of these barriers is important for meeting the needs of prospective students who may be turning away from school.
The barriers don’t stop once students start their higher education, either. Hurdling the barriers to getting into a degree program is important, but hurdling the barriers to finishing the program in a timely manner is just as or even more critical for students.
So, what are the major barriers to students continuing their education and finishing their programs in a timely manner?
Barrier #1: Low Income
Low-income students often face the battle of balancing work and school. There are a few ways students can handle this situation. They can either put school off for a period of time to save money for school or choose to pack their schedule and work while they are in school. The challenge with waiting to go to school while working is that they are limited to only a few job opportunities with no higher education. This means they could be taking a few years off before they have enough money to go back to school, leaving them unmotivated to return and attain a degree.
That leaves them to think about going to school while working, using the credentials they gain from their class experience to help secure a higher-paying job. But, other struggles come with this. It is nearly impossible to maintain a full working schedule, class schedule and maintain relationships with family and friends. Students who take this route often need to sacrifice their social life for a couple of years until their life is a little more stable.
Even more so, the research and application process for financial aid, grants, and scholarships is a timely process to add to working full time and planning for school. Falling into the low-income bracket doesn’t completely keep someone from attending higher education, although it does put them at a disadvantage compared to high-income students. For example, one study found in their sample group of students that 89 percent of high-income students had completed a bachelor’s degree in eight years. Compared to the low-income students, only 59 percent had completed a bachelor’s degree in the same time frame.
Barrier #2: First Generation
The barriers first-generation students face are multifold and contingent on the opportunity gap they experience. The Glossary of Education Reform defines the opportunity gap as “the ways in which race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, English proficiency, community wealth, familial situations, or other factors contribute to or perpetuate lower educational aspirations, achievement, and attainment for certain groups of students."
The unfortunate truth is that barriers keeping first-generation students from pursuing or successfully completing their postsecondary degree is typically out of their control. Even though these challenges are out of their hands, they still must overcome them to achieve the same things their non-first-generation peers do.
Students whose parents have graduated from college benefit from their parent's experience and expertise to guide them through the education process, whereas first-generation students do not have that guidance. Pursuing higher education is no easy task and requires a lot of guidance and support. In order to get the needed support, many first-generation students turn to guidance counselors or student body advisors. Unfortunately, many counselors and advisors are overloaded with students, lacking the time for students' needs and wants to be fully considered. This can lead first-generation students away from their goals instead of towards them, without the student even knowing.
Barrier #3: Unprepared Academically
Students who didn’t excel in high school due to learning challenges or test anxiety are at a disadvantage heading into college. Many postsecondary institutions require admissions tests to prove a student’s readiness for the program. Those who don’t pass are put into remedial courses to help improve their knowledge before retaking the exams. Not only are these tests and courses an additional cost to the already expensive price tag of a degree, but they refrain students from keeping pace with their peers which can discourage them from continuing the pursuit. Beyond that, college courses follow a fast-paced, self-guided learning structure, which may not align with the learning structure some students need to be successful.
Along the lines of poor academic performance preceding college is the complexity of the application process. In many cases, the verbiage used in applications for institutions, scholarships, and financial aid put those who are venturing into the education journey alone and academically unprepared at a disadvantage. According to an article published by The Hechinger Report, half of 2018 high school seniors didn’t fill out and turn in their FAFSA – resulting in nearly $24 billion of financial aid uncollected. The importance of plain language is often overshadowed by an institution's desire to message itself in a way that reflects high-level academics. However, this limits the number of students that apply and that would prosper at the university.
The choice to pursue postsecondary education is filled with barriers, both physical and intellectual, that leave many students in the dark. Becoming well versed in the barriers students face can help bridge the gap between an institution’s enrollment goals and a student’s academic goals. Once an institution understands that there is typically no simple fix to any of these barriers, they can provide support and guidance to students who show a hunger for higher education. These students want to feel heard and understood. When they find an institution that provides them a listening ear and helping hand, they are best set to pursue their degree and achieve their goals.
Strategies for Higher Ed Marketing
LaneTerralever is an independent agency that specializes in developing higher education marketing strategies for clients, including Universal Technical Institute, Northcentral University, Rio Salado College, and Touro University Worldwide. We often conduct primary research to understand the needs of our client’s customers so we can make the most informed marketing strategies possible. In our latest white paper, we aimed to gain a better understanding of the motivations and barriers facing non-traditional students as they consider a return to school. Download the white paper here.