Insights from the State of Higher Education Report 2024 by Lumina and Gallup:

Changing Higher Ed Podcast 214 with host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and guest Dr. Courtney Brown

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Changing Higher Podcast 214- Insights from the State of Higher Education Report 2024 by Lumina and Gallup with guest Courtney Brown and host Dr. Drumm McNaughton
Changing Higher Ed Podcast | Drumm McNaughton | The Change Leader

July 2, 2024 · Episode 214

Insights from the State of Higher Education Report 2024 by Lumina and Gallup

41 Min · By Dr. Drumm McNaughton

In this episode, we review the findings of the 2024 State of Higher Education Report, presented by Dr. Courtney Brown of Lumina Foundation.


A staggering 41.9 million U.S. adults have started college but stopped out before completing their degree, according to the latest State of Higher Education 2024 Report conducted by Lumina Foundation and Gallup. Up from the 2023 report’s 40.4 million students stopping out. This represents an alarming trend underscoring the urgent need for higher education institutions to address the barriers to enrollment and challenges preventing student success.


We welcome back Dr. Courtney Brown to discuss the State of Higher Education 2024 findings and what strategies higher education presidents, boards, and executive leadership must take to ensure they meet the needs of today’s students.


The Evolving Profile of College and University Students


Contrary to the traditional image of college students as recent high school graduates with the ability to live in dormitories, today’s higher education students are markedly different. The 2024 State of Higher Education Report paints a more diverse and complex picture of the modern student body:


  • Independent Learners: Approximately 35% of current students are financially independent of their parents, reflecting a shift towards older, more self-reliant learners.


  • Student-Parents: About one-third of today’s students have children of their own, balancing family responsibilities with academic pursuits.


  • Working Students: A significant 60% of students are employed, with 40% holding full-time jobs while pursuing their education.


  • Age Diversity: Over one-third of current students are over 25 years old, dispelling the myth that college is primarily for young adults.


This evolving student profile presents both challenges and opportunities for higher education institutions. To effectively serve these diverse learners, colleges and universities must adapt their programs, policies, and support services to meet the unique needs of non-traditional students.


Barriers to Enrollment: Understanding the Challenges


The 2024 report identifies several key barriers preventing potential students from enrolling or causing current students to consider stopping out. By understanding these obstacles, higher education leaders can develop targeted strategies to improve access and retention:


Cost and Affordability


The primary barrier to enrollment remains the high cost of education. The report reveals that cost is the number one reason why people do not enroll in the first place or struggle to stay enrolled. This issue is particularly pronounced among Black and Hispanic adults, who cite cost as the primary factor preventing their enrollment.


Key findings:


  • Over half of all never-enrolled or previously enrolled individuals cite cost as a critical factor in their decision-making process.

  • 71% of currently or previously enrolled U.S. adults who have taken out loans report delaying major life activities due to their educational debt, including buying a home, purchasing a car, having children, or even returning to school to finish their degree.


Emotional Stress and Mental Health


The report highlights a concerning trend in student well-being, with emotional stress emerging as a significant factor in student retention:


  • 70% of currently enrolled students who have considered stopping out cite emotional stress as a primary reason.

  • This figure has more than doubled since 2020 and has remained consistently high, along with personal mental health concerns.


Work and Family Responsibilities


The profile of today’s students, many of whom are balancing work and family commitments, creates additional barriers to enrollment and completion:


  • 60% of students work while in school, with 40% holding full-time jobs.

  • Approximately one-third of students have children of their own.

  • Many students are also caring for adult parents or other family members.


Systemic Barriers and Policy Impacts


The report identifies several systemic barriers and policy issues affecting enrollment and student success:


  • State policies on divisive issues, gun control, reproductive rights, and affirmative action are influencing students’ decisions about where to enroll.

  • Across age groups, gender, race, ethnicity, and political affiliation, prospective students prefer institutions in states with less restrictive policies on reproductive rights, free speech about divisive issues, and more restrictive gun control policies.


Students Stopping Out: A Growing Concern


As previously mentioned, the increase in students stopping out is a critical issue highlighted in the 2024 report. The number of adults who have some college credit but no degree has risen to 41.9 million, up from 40.4 million in the previous year. This trend has significant implications for individuals, communities, and the nation as a whole.


The Number One Reason for Students Stopping Out: Emotional Stress


The 2024 State of Higher Education Report reveals a startling trend that has persisted and even intensified since 2021: emotional stress has become the leading cause of student attrition. This finding challenges traditional assumptions about why students leave higher education and highlights the urgent need for institutions to prioritize student well-being.


Key findings on emotional stress:


  • Prevalence: 70% of currently enrolled students who have considered stopping out cite emotional stress as their primary reason.

  • Rapid increase: This figure has more than doubled since 2020, representing a significant shift in the student experience.

  • Consistency: The high levels of reported emotional stress have remained consistently elevated, along with personal mental health concerns.

  • Broader impact: 64% of all currently enrolled students have considered stopping out in the last six months, with emotional stress being a major factor.


The persistence of this trend suggests that the emotional toll on students is not merely a temporary effect of the COVID-19 pandemic but a deeper, systemic issue within higher education. The complexity of modern student life, including balancing work, family responsibilities, and academic pressures, contributes to this heightened stress level.


This finding underscores the critical need for higher education institutions to:


  • Invest in comprehensive mental health services and resources.

  • Train faculty and staff to recognize and respond to signs of student distress

  • Create supportive campus environments that prioritize student well-being.

  • Develop flexible academic policies that accommodate students’ diverse needs and life circumstances.

  • Implement early intervention strategies to identify and assist students at risk of stopping out due to emotional stress.


By addressing emotional stress as a primary retention issue, colleges and universities can not only improve student success rates but also fulfill their broader mission of supporting holistic student development and well-being.


The Value of Higher Education and Workforce Alignment


Despite the challenges and claims of a declining perception of the value of higher education, the 2024 State of Higher Education Report reaffirms the perceived high value of post-secondary education:


  • Nearly all adults without a college degree believe that at least one type of credential is extremely or very valuable.

  • Almost 60% of adults who have never enrolled in higher education have considered enrolling in the past two years, an increase from previous years.

  • 84% of current or prospective students cite employment factors (e.g., earning a raise, promotion, or more fulfilling role) as reasons for enrolling or considering enrollment.


The report emphasizes the need for better alignment between higher education and workforce needs. Students are seeking credentials that have clear value in the job market, highlighting the importance of collaboration between educational institutions and employers.


Addressing Enrollment Challenges: Strategies for Higher Education Leaders


Based on the insights from the 2024 State of Higher Education Report, here are key strategies for college and university leaders to consider:


Reevaluate Financial Aid and Cost Structures


  • Develop more transparent pricing models to address the perception gap between sticker price and actual cost.

  • Explore innovative financial aid options, including income-share agreements and employer partnerships.

  • Advocate for increased state and federal funding, including support for short-term Pell Grants.


Enhance Mental Health and Support Services


  • Invest in comprehensive mental health services and resources for students.

  • Train faculty and staff to recognize and respond to signs of student distress.

  • Create peer support networks and mentoring programs to foster a sense of community and belonging.


Adapt Programs for Non-Traditional Students


  • Offer flexible scheduling options, including evening and weekend classes.

  • Develop hybrid and online learning opportunities to accommodate working students.

  • Provide childcare services or subsidies for student-parents.


Strengthen Workforce Alignment


  • Collaborate with local employers to design curricula that meet industry needs.

  • Integrate real-world experiences and project-based learning into academic programs.

  • Offer stackable credentials and micro-credentials to provide students with marketable skills throughout their academic journey.


Address Systemic Barriers


  • Review and revise institutional policies that may create unnecessary obstacles for non-traditional students.

  • Advocate for state and federal policies that support access and equity in higher education.

  • Develop targeted outreach and support programs for underrepresented student populations.


Three Takeaways for Higher Ed Presidents and Boards


  1. Ask Your Students: Actively collect data on student needs and experiences to inform decision-making and improve support services.


  1. Identify Potential Students: Analyze your community to understand who could be your future students and how to adapt your business model to serve them.


  1. Focus on Affordability: Continuously explore ways to make education more affordable, as cost remains the primary barrier to enrollment and completion.


Bonus Takeaway: Include a Student on Your Board of Trustees


Dr. McNaughton suggests adding a student to the board of trustees, preferably a non-traditional student who can provide valuable insights into the challenges and needs of today’s diverse student population.


Embracing Evolutionary Change for a Stronger Future


The 2024 State of Higher Education Report presents a clear call to action for higher education leaders. As the student demographic continues to evolve and new challenges emerge, institutions must be willing to adapt and innovate. By addressing the barriers to enrollment, supporting student mental health, aligning programs with workforce needs, and embracing the diversity of today’s learners, colleges and universities can create more inclusive and effective educational environments.


The road ahead may be challenging, but it also presents opportunities for transformative change. By listening to student voices, collaborating with industry partners, and reimagining traditional models of education, higher education institutions can not only survive but thrive in this new landscape. Surviving the declining enrollment trend depends on our ability to meet the needs of all learners, regardless of their age, background, or life circumstances.


As we look beyond 2025, it’s clear that the focus must shift from simply increasing attainment rates to ensuring that the education provided is truly valuable and aligned with the needs of both students and society. By embracing this holistic approach, higher education can continue to play a vital role in shaping the future of individuals, communities, and the nation as a whole.


About Our Podcast Guest

Courtney Brown, Ph.D., is vice president of impact and planning for Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all. As the chief data and research officer, Brown oversees the foundation’s efforts in the areas of strategic planning, learning, impact, and effectiveness. She also leads Lumina’s international engagement.


She joined the foundation in 2011 with a strong background in performance measurement, research, and evaluation. Before 2011, Brown was a senior research associate at the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University. There, she led studies and evaluations focused on education and post-high school programs within the United States and across Europe.


Brown is a frequent speaker and panelist in the United States and other countries regarding postsecondary strategy, student success, data-driven decision-making, and evidence-based practices. She has developed and shared manuals, working papers, articles, and books related to undergraduate research, performance measurement, randomized-control trials, and other evaluation methods, as well as conducted webinars and workshops on topics such as evaluation, performance measurement, and success in education beyond high school.


About the Host

Dr. Drumm McNaughton is a consultant to higher ed institutions in governance, accreditation, strategy, change, and mergers.


Transcript: Changing Higher Ed Podcast 214

Introduction and Guest Welcome

Drumm McNaughton: Thank you, David.

Background of Dr. Courtney Brown and Lumina Foundation

Drumm McNaughton: Today, we welcome back Dr. Courtney Brown, Vice President of Impact and Planning for Lumina Foundation. Lumina is an independent private foundation located in Indianapolis that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all. As Lumina’s Chief Data and Research Officer, Courtney oversees the foundation’s efforts in the areas of strategic planning, learning, impact, and effectiveness. She also leads their international engagement practice as well.

Courtney’s an expert in post secondary strategy, and she joins us today to talk about the recent State of the Higher Education Study, 2024 Edition, they do with Gallup every year.

Courtney, welcome back to the show.

Courtney Brown: Thanks for having me again.

Drumm McNaughton: My pleasure. I am so looking forward to our conversation.

The State of Higher Education Study: Origins and Early Findings

Drumm McNaughton: It’s almost an annual thing when Lumina and Gallup come out with their  annual “State of Higher Education” study, we have you back to the show. We need to change that and have you back more often.

Courtney Brown: Well, we do produce a lot of stuff at Lumina, but the partnership with Gallup is something that there are reports coming out at all time from January through early summer. So it’s a great time to highlight that work.

Drumm McNaughton: It certainly is, and your findings this year, when we were talking about them just the other day, are pretty amazing and startling in some ways. We’ll get to those in just a moment, but if you wouldn’t mind for our guests, give us a little bit of background on yourself and how you came to Lumina. Fascinating story to me.

Courtney Brown: Yeah, sure, happy to. So I come from the research and evaluation space and spent a number of years as a research faculty at universities, really doing evaluation and research. And I came to Lumina in 2012 to really focus on performance measurement. We have [00:02:00] a quantitative, time limited goal at Lumina. That is by 2025, 60 percent of people in the US will have a degree or other high quality credential.

And I came into really better understand that goal, better understand how to measure it, and all of the other work that we are doing. Since that time, I’m now Vice President of Strategic Impact and Planning, and my role is really, as Chief Data and Research Officer at Lumina, is to better understand what’s happening, what are we learning, how do we share that with the field, and how do we share that internally so that we can continue to plan and drive impact?

Drumm McNaughton: And you come out with the State of Higher Ed Report every year. Last year we had you on the show and we had a great conversation about it. Tell us a little bit about the report, if you wouldn’t mind,

Courtney Brown: Absolutely! We started this study in 2020, and you may remember 2020, we were, just beginning the pandemic and there was questions all

Drumm McNaughton: Pan [00:03:00] pandemic. What’s a pandemic?

Courtney Brown: Yeah. It’s now a distant memory, I wish. So everybody was wondering like, what’s going to happen with higher ed? Is this like a recession? And we know in recessions, everybody enrolls, and so there were people saying, everyone’s going to enroll, we’re going to have record numbers. And then on the other side, people were saying, “This is the end of higher ed. Like how can we operate? Nobody’s going to come back”. And we thought, why do we keep just guessing? Why don’t we ask students or potential students? And so we launched this study in the fall of 2000 and reached out to current students, people who have never touched higher ed, and people who had been enrolled in higher ed, but stopped out along the way at some point.

So that’s really when the study began, and it will be no surprise to you that in the fall of 2020 we learned most people weren’t enrolling because they were afraid of COVID 19. It was not a surprise, but that people wanted to enroll and they [00:04:00] plan to go back. So we have decided that every year since then we continue to do this, because we continue to learn what students are experiencing or what people who are not part of the system think about the system, and every year gives us some more nuance to that story.

Drumm McNaughton: As you look back at the various reports, have things changed that much from the first one?

Current Trends and Challenges in Higher Education

Drumm McNaughton: There’s other reasons besides covid that they’re not enrolling at this point. But what are you seeing from a trends perspective versus right now.

Courtney Brown: One of the most surprising things that we saw in the fall of ’21 was the skyrocketing number of people who reported emotional stress. And that was the number one reason students were considering stopping out. When you ask students, are you considering, have you considered stopping out, of those currently enrolled students, of those people that said, “Yes”, 70 percent said, “Yes, because I have stress. [00:05:00] I’m worried about continuing for those reasons”, and that had more than doubled from 2020, and that number stayed consistently high. That along with personal mental health reasons. Those things, that was a trend, we have never seen something jump up that high in a year to year comparison and stay at those record numbers.

Drumm McNaughton: That is interesting to me. I don’t want to say fascinating, but it’s interesting. I never would have expected it to stay that high. Yes, there was a lot of things going on. COVID is very different than any other, , since 1918, the Spanish flu pandemic, we hadn’t had anything close to that. So of course, it’s gonna trigger things in people, but for it to stay that high, that’s somewhat puzzling to me

Courtney Brown: It’s puzzling and it’s not puzzling at the same time. So if we really start to unpack the student experience and what we’re hearing from students, it’s no surprise they [00:06:00] have a lot of stress.

Understanding Today’s Students and Their Stressors

Courtney Brown: So what people don’t often really think about are who today’s students are. I think if you ask most people on the street, who is a college student? Most of us would say, “Oh, they’re 19 or 18. They’re fresh out of high school. They’re going to a four year university. They’re going to live in a brick building”. We have this very old fashioned picture of college.

Drumm McNaughton: Traditional students.

Courtney Brown: Absolutely. And that’s no longer the truth in who today’s students are.

Today’s students are independent of their parents, think about 35 percent are independent of their parents. About the same percentage have children of their own. 60 percent of today’s students work and 40 percent of those people are working full time. So when you think about all of those things going on, it is no surprise that there is some stress.

They’re working full time. They have children of their own or they’re taking care of parents. There was a huge health scare. The cost, which I’m sure we’ll get to, of [00:07:00] going to higher education, or post secondary education, has skyrocketed. So all those things together, it’s no surprise that people are feeling stress.

Drumm McNaughton: That makes perfect sense, thank you. No one’s explained it to me like that, that clearly. Thank you. The other piece that comes with that is, we’re putting much more of a focus on first gen students, getting them in the classroom. And this is something that is completely, I don’t want to say completely antithetic to who they are and what they’ve done, but they have no background from their parents on this. So that, to me, would be another stressor as well. Does that make sense?

Courtney Brown: Absolutely. People who have no family member or a parent who has participated in higher education are often thrown into the system and they have nobody to ask for advice or what they should do or how do I enroll or where do I go to eat or my classes or any of those sort of things.

And so if the school [00:08:00] isn’t there ready to support them and help them and be there to answer questions, they’re often left all alone, unsure what to do. They can’t navigate the system, and they’re more likely to stop out because they don’t feel like they belong or fit into that school.

Drumm McNaughton: And then you’ve got the other piece of the picture, the delivery side, faculty saying, “Hey, I did it. My contemporaries did it, we’re not going to mollycoddle these students, they need to get to our level. And it’s not a realistic perspective.

Courtney Brown: It’s not a realistic perspective. First of all, we just talked about how today’s students are different. You talked about the first generation students, these students are more generationally, economically, socially diverse than ever before. We’re not talking about the college of the 1960s or 1970s, where it was for a much more privileged, uniform group.

And so it is different. And today’s generations are requiring. [00:09:00] different forms of learning. We have access to much different types of technology. So we can’t continue to teach the same way. We can’t continue to deliver the same way.

Drumm McNaughton: Yeah, spot on. Thank you. This wasn’t exactly what we were going to talk about today, but you have explained something to me that I really didn’t understand at a very fundamental level. So this is fabulous. Thank you.

Courtney Brown: Absolutely.

Drumm McNaughton: So let’s dive into the 2024 report.

The Value of Higher Education and Workforce Alignment

Drumm McNaughton: We all know higher ed’s under attack. Affordability, it’s far more expensive, there’s still a value there, but then when you throw in all these other factors that we’ve just talked about… the report goes into this kind of stuff so let’s just dive in.

Quality and value of education.

Courtney Brown: One of the first things that I want to say is that, “out there”, there is this narrative in the media that people [00:10:00] don’t value college or post secondary education anymore, that it’s not worth it. And over and over again we hear that is not what people are saying. We hear that nearly all adults without a college degree say at least one type of credential is extremely or very valuable.

And almost 60 percent of adults who have never enrolled have considered enrolling. They want to get additional education, and that has increased over time. So we know people want it. We know people say, ” it is really important and it’s important for career outcomes to earn more, to get a promotion, to have a more fulfilling job”. They know they need some form of post secondary education to get that

Drumm McNaughton: You mentioned a percentage that people find value in it. What is that percentage?

Courtney Brown: Well, what I said was 59%. Let me say that’s 59 percent of people who have never enrolled have considered enrolling in the past two years. So that’s almost 60 percent of [00:11:00] people have considered enrolling and almost all adults say that a degree or some form of post secondary education is extremely or very valuable.

Drumm McNaughton: I have heard the same things as well. That 60 percent or 59 percent is huge, and that is an untapped market for higher education. We in higher education just have to figure out how to make it to where One, it’s affordable, and when I say affordable, from a cost perspective, as well as a time perspective. We have to make it to where it’s convenient for people to come to school. Yeah, there’s going to be giving up, but you said what 40 percent of all people are working full time

Courtney Brown: Yes, 60 percent work, 40 percent work full time.

Drumm McNaughton: And that’s not sustainable. It’s no wonder there’s so much stress out there.

Courtney Brown: Absolutely.

Drumm McNaughton: So the other piece with that people look at it as important. Credentials, and I know [00:12:00] HLC has got an initiative right now to talk about how credentials could be accredited and used. Georgetown’s Center for Education and the Workforce, they’re looking at the alignment between credentials and the workforce. This workforce alignment was another theme that came up in your study.

Courtney Brown: Absolutely. People know that they need some form of post secondary education for a better job. So they know that they need a credential of value, a credential that they can get and it has value in the workforce. So we need to do a much better job of aligning what the workforce needs, not just today, but more importantly for tomorrow, and what higher education, post secondary education is delivering.

Because people aren’t going to get some sort of credential just for the fun of it. With all those other priorities that we talked about that, that people have, they want some value out of it. And so the first thing we have to do is make sure that it does have [00:13:00] value in the workforce.

Drumm McNaughton: I remember years ago when I was going back for a graduate degree and talking with folks. He said there’s three reasons you go for a graduate degree. One is to get a pay raise, to get a better job, or to get a promotion. That goes for undergraduate or graduate. The challenge being, is that people are so busy and how do they take time out of their lives to go back for this degree?

Courtney Brown: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. So we found in our study that 84 percent of current or prospective students cite at least one of those employment factors that you just mentioned. Earning a raise promotion more fulfilling role, that’s why they’re enrolled or considering enrolling. So you’re dead on that’s still very current data

But you’re right, the problem is they have all of these other priorities. They have to work, they have to get food on the table for their children or their family or themselves. [00:14:00] They need to be able to have transportation to get places. So oftentimes post secondary education goes to the background, it’s something they want to get to, but they just don’t have the time or the money to be able to get it done.

Drumm McNaughton: The other piece with that alignment is pretty much every university that I know and all your accreditors say that faculty control the curriculum. That is their expertise, they should be developing it, etc. The challenge being is probably one out of every 10 schools have some sort of alignment partnership with industry so that they know exactly what it is industry needs.

Now, if you’re not asking industry what they need from graduates, then you’re stuck with, I don’t want to say stuck, but curriculum gets put into the bucket of this is where my research is, so this is [00:15:00] where I want the curriculum to go, versus what’s really helpful for students.

Courtney Brown: You’re right. That is one of the difficulties we face, but there are a lot of schools out there that aren’t only focused with faculty with research agendas. There are a lot of schools, their community colleges, there are regional colleges and universities, smaller colleges that are really focused on their students. And I want to give credit to colleges because they are trying to reach out to employers, they are trying to do this alignment. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, it doesn’t work at all. But, part of this is students need to be asking a lot of questions. They are the consumer, they are entitled to ask the questions and put their resources to a place that is going to deliver for them. So what is it that they’re hoping to get out of this and make sure that institution can actually deliver those type of credentials and ask questions like, “What does somebody like me, what are their outcomes?” and ask the college for data and research on that and the colleges need to be doing a much better [00:16:00] job of providing that information to their consumers, the students and the future students.

Drumm McNaughton: And from a high school perspective, there really aren’t enough guidance counselors to be able to direct the students. Especially first gen, they just don’t have the experience of asking these kinds of questions.

Courtney Brown: You’re right. As funds are getting fewer and fewer, there are just not enough counselors going around in the high school level, and there are not enough at the college level. There should be a mentor, and we know an advisor, throughout the college experience. We see again and again in the research, how important that is for student success to have those individuals at a college university, and oftentimes they’re not the first place that a university is resourcing.

Enrollment Trends and Barriers to Enrollment

Drumm McNaughton: Absolutely. Moving right along because we’ve got a lot of things to cover in this, but I will say I, I love having conversations like this with you. It’s always fascinating for me, so thank you. Enrollment trends and barriers to enrollment.

Enrollment Trends and Barriers

Drumm McNaughton: Where do you [00:17:00] go from there?

Courtney Brown: One of the things that I think is important to recognize is that enrollment has been declining over the last 10 years. So it really peaked during that recession we had in 2008, 2009. As we said earlier, that usually during recessions, more people enroll. They’re looking to get some quick skills so that when the job market gets better, they can get re skilled and get back into that market.

And so we often see enrollment increase, we don’t necessarily see success increase, but enrollment increases. So we saw this peak of enrollment during that recession. And since then we’ve seen enrollment declining. Now it took a huge plunge during the pandemic, just plummeted. And we’re kind of coming out of that, but we’re not even quite to pre pandemic numbers, much less the numbers we had in, 2009, 2010. So we’re continuing to see this decline, which isn’t great, especially because we have this demographic cliff coming. We’re going to have fewer and fewer younger students to fill some [00:18:00] of these spaces. So if we continue to do what we’re doing, we’re going to continue to see enrollment decline.

Drumm McNaughton: And the demographic cliff, the enrollment cliff, it’s not a huge drop off, but it’s the continuation, and a more of a bigger bump than it would be, based on the 2008 recession. The birth rates went down there, so it’s natural that this would happen.

Courtney Brown: Yeah, absolutely. We’ve known this was coming for a few years, and the problem is, as we talked about is higher ed, particularly colleges and universities, really focus on those people coming out of high school as the ones that are going to enroll. And that’s the number that’s declining. And so if they continue to use their current business model, there are not enough students to go around as there were, 10, 20 years ago.

Drumm McNaughton: And, it requires a change of focus or foci for the colleges moving more toward adult [00:19:00] credentialing as well. And that’s not giving up the liberal arts education or the STEM education, whatever, but realizing that you’ve got to change your enrollment to different demographics.

Changing the Higher Ed Business Model for a New Demographic

Courtney Brown: Absolutely. Colleges and universities and all the post-secondary education is going to have to change their business model to better serve today’s students. Again, there are over a third of today’s students that are over 25 years old, so that already is the market. These are people that don’t have credentials, that want a degree, or a certificate or certification. And so you’re gonna have to think about how they can educate these students.

They’re also going to have to think about how do we continue to reskill and upskill people, and have much more of a lifelong learning approach. I don’t know if that’s the right term anymore, the days that probably we had, where you finish all your education and you have a lifetime of a career, are pretty much over. People are going to have to continue to “earn and learn” throughout their lifetimes.

Drumm McNaughton: [00:20:00] That’s a typical Arizona state model. Michael Crow typically said, putting on my sales hat, “Why do we sell them once when we can provide lifelong education to them, regardless of where they are?”

Courtney Brown: Absolutely. We need more people that are continuing to come in and out of these post secondary learning opportunities.

Drumm McNaughton: We also, I think, need to do some work with policies in higher education. One of the things that has tried to get through Congress, but hasn’t successfully, is short term Pell.

Courtney Brown: We know we need people with certificates and certifications to fill our labor market, and so how do we make sure that those people have the funding they need in order to pursue those? And yes, that’s one area that we need to focus on.

Drumm McNaughton: Other policies?

Courtney Brown: There are a lot of policies. When we think about today’s students again, we have so many policies and incentives for 18 year olds, a lot of scholarships, different money and things. Very little [00:21:00] focus on the adult students, or students who may need some more help so that they can get to the finish line.

So really having policymakers focus on today’s students, rather than this old model of thinking, would help open up policies so that higher education is more accessible to many more people.

Drumm McNaughton: This is somewhat of a flippant remark, but there’s some truth in it, is if the people at the education department weren’t as old as they are, maybe they would have a different perspective on younger students. I don’t know, I just toss it out there.

Courtney Brown: Yeah, I mean it is interesting because they experienced higher education in a very different time when everybody did go for four years to a brick building and their parents were paying for it. Or the GI Bill was paying for it. And that was their experience. We don’t have that type of funding anymore, that’s not existent. And parents aren’t able to pay for higher education anymore. So we do need to flip that. And, you talked about short term Pell. The regular Pell is not sufficient for today’s costs.

Drumm McNaughton: No. Which brings us to barriers for enrollment and cost being a significant barrier. It happens across the spectrum, but it’s especially problematic for black and hispanic adults. They cite, as the primary reason for their not enrolling, cost.

Courtney Brown: Yeah, it’s not surprising, but cost is the number one reason why people are not enrolling in the first place and why they can’t stay enrolled. The cost is just skyrocketing and they don’t know how to overcome it. One of the problems is perception of cost. Again, there’s a narrative out there because one college, their tuition is now over a hundred thousand dollars a year. I’ve heard probably about this one college 20 times in the past few months. So I hear that now college is over a hundred thousand dollars a year. And that’s just because we’re perpetuating this one story from one small college.

The reality is it’s public schools, public four year and two year are much more affordable than that, and most people aren’t aware of that. it’s still a tough barrier for so many, but we need to make sure we better educate people about what that cost is, what the true cost is, and then what types of supports they may get.

It’s still like to bridge that gap between what the real cost is going to be and the sticker price, it’s still going to be too high for many, so we have to get that cost down, but fixing this perception would help

Drumm McNaughton: You’re absolutely right with that. It is a perception for the most part. Many colleges are going to having what the actual price is, after scholarships, etc, on their websites, but I don’t think there are quite enough

Courtney Brown: There are not, and it’s really hard to understand. Personally, I’ll just say that I have four children. They all went to college, three of them at the same university, and I never understood what I was paying, and it was never the same for any one of them. So it’s just a confusing, and I have some knowledge about higher education and figuring out how much it was going to cost every semester, it was a different cost and it made no sense to me. Three children, same university, same college within that university, and the price was never the same.

Drumm McNaughton: Unbelievable, and you’ve got a PhD.

Courtney Brown: I have a PhD. I can’t figure it out. And it’s my area, and it’s still really hard to figure out.

Drumm McNaughton: There’s not only the cost but there’s the outside work, which we touched on already. Dependents. It used to be from a dependent’s perspective it was maybe the parents maybe the kids. Now, frequently, it’s both

Courtney Brown: Yeah, absolutely. It’s getting hard. We have heard that well over half of all people, of those never enrolled or previously enrolled, says cost is really important.

The other thing that we found, which is, I think is really interesting, sad, is 71 percent of currently or previously enrolled U. S. adults who have taken out loans report that they have delayed a life activity because of these loans. 71%. That could be buying a home, purchasing a car, having children, or even returning to school to finish their degree. So they can’t even return because this debt that they have accumulated is crippling. So 71 percent is a staggering number of people in the U. S. who cannot pursue a life event, get married, because of the debt that they’re accruing,

Drumm McNaughton: What Gonna go off subject for just a little bit, okay. Why is it that there are some people in Washington that are so adamant against debt relief?

Courtney Brown: This is a tough one because I think people, again, when we talk about some of the policymakers and their experience, they got through it, they paid their debt and so they don’t understand why other people can’t. They don’t understand the cost that it is. They don’t understand that some people don’t have generational wealth that they can fall back on. And so all of these things are creating huge barriers and I think there’s just not enough listening or understanding different people’s perspectives, different people’s experiences and realities.

Drumm McNaughton: I suspect that’s pretty much spot on. I just don’t understand because when people have to put off these life events as you call them It has an economic impact, it has a societal impact. There’s major impacts to all of this, and so, if something like this were to happen, I think it would be a very positive thing, but that’s just me, and people tell me I’m too liberal anyway. So…

Courtney Brown: The reality is, so Lumina in 2008 set a goal for the nation that by 2025, 60 percent of people will have a credential. It wasn’t just because that would be fun if people have credentials or more people would have paper to hang up on their walls, the goal was set because the nation needs more skilled workers, more people with these credentials in order to have an economically competitive nation in this global market. And so that was part of the reason for setting this goal. So you’re absolutely right that, if we don’t think about these things and the impact they have, not just on individuals, but on our communities and our nation, then we’re missing the point.

Students Stopping Out Increased to 41.9 Million Students


Drumm McNaughton: Yeah, I spot on.

Which brings us to students stopping out. There’s other barriers, we talked a bit about mental health and emotional stress, and the report critical to that, and we’ll get into state policies in just a little bit, because that is also impacting enrollment. But one of the things that really got my jaw dropped, for lack of a better way of saying it, was, last year, there were 40.4 million students who had stopped out. Now, it’s 41. 9. In one year, a million and a half students have stopped out. That’s unbelievable.

Courtney Brown: Yes. So a couple things. First of all, there’s some data concerns with some of it, so it may not be exactly a million and a half more, but yes. The number is now 41. 9 million, 41. 9 million. If you talk about something that keeps me up at night, it is the fact that almost 42 million adults over 18 have started college and for whatever reason had to stop out.

We talked about all those barriers, all the stress they’re facing. It’s not surprising, but wow, what a loss of potential for those individuals, our communities and our country. And what scares me even more on that is that, of currently enrolled students, 64 percent have considered stopping out in the last six months. But more than half of the currently enrolled students are considering stopping out. The system is wrong, we have to fix this, that we are not getting students to success.

We talked a little bit about the enrollment cliff, the enrollment numbers are going down, we have more people that are stopping out. This isn’t working for anybody.

Drumm McNaughton: No, it isn’t. And it’s like you say, we’ve got to change the model. We have to change what our priorities are. Yes, costs have gone up and in some respects that’s understandable when you have to provide mental health services, when you have to provide social services, et cetera. Yes. Does it need to go up as much as it has? I would argue probably not.

But we’ve got to be able to provide for these students who are different coming in the door. First gen students, people who have dropped out coming back, et cetera. We’ve got to help them, we can’t solve the problems for them, but we have to help them to solutions so that they can finish their degrees and reap the benefits of this major investment that they’ve put from a cost and from a time perspective.

Student Barrier #4: How Policies Are Impacting Enrollment and Student Success


Courtney Brown: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. I Higher ed is doing good things. We know that people that have a degree have a better life. They get better jobs. They’re more likely to be healthy. They’re more likely to participate in their local communities and bigger. They’re more likely to contribute to nonprofits, whether they’re volunteering or monetary donations. They’re happier. They feel more fulfilled in their jobs. All these things happen, so we know it’s good for the individual and for our communities. And until we all see that higher education is a public good, we’re going to continue to run into these problems. Because it is good, it is good to increase the attainment level for everybody and for our nation.

But we’re going to have to change some things in how we deliver it, the policies that support it in order to be successful.

Systemic Barriers and Policy Impacts


Drumm McNaughton: And one of the things we’ve chatted about was eliminating systemic barriers, policies, public perceptions, all of those kind of things. I think those are critical things that have to be done to make it, I don’t want to say easier for somebody to get a degree, but to make it to where it’s more attainable.

Courtney Brown: You can think about big policies, we talked about Pell and other sort of things, big federal policies, but they’re also smaller policies that sometimes you don’t even think of, like policies that all first year students have to live in the dorm. That’s a policy for some universities, not all. So some universities say if you’re a first year student, you have to live in the dorm. Well, what happens to that student who has a child, who can’t live in the dorm? Or what happens to that student who’s a first year student and is 45 and is working and children? Or is taking care of their adult parents. It doesn’t work for everybody when you think about some of these policies at the institution level that we need to really pay attention to, and then there are the big federal policies we need to work on.

Drumm McNaughton: There’s the state policies too, which are impacting enrollment many more Gen Z. Like banning discussing divisive issues. Seriously? Affirmative action, guns on campus, reproductive rights. All of these things are affecting enrollment.

Courtney Brown: The study that we did in the fall, is we asked people, both prospective and current students, or actually maybe it was just prospective students, we asked them, of given these policies, how do they impact? Would they impact you? And we asked gun policy, so policies carrying guns on campus, reproductive rights, divisive issues and about affirmative action.

And we asked these, a lot of people said yes, absolutely. Those policies would impact my decision. So then we said, okay, how would they impact your decision? And what we learned is that across age groups, gender, race, ethnicity, and political affiliation, people are more likely to say that they prefer to attend a college in a state that has less restrictive reproductive rights, more restrictive gun control, and less restrictive policies on divisive issues. Across all of those, again, even across political affiliation and we haven’t seen the numbers yet, because some of these policies are pretty new, whether that has impacted enrollment, but when states and institutions within those states are seeing these declining enrollments, it’s another place they really need to think about.

Are we a welcoming place? Are we providing a place where our students feel safe, where we’re supporting them, and we can get them to the finish line? And these policies are going to impact that.

Drumm McNaughton: Absolutely. They, I did a podcast with a gentleman from AAUP focused on Florida. And what I heard from that was pretty concerning. And what’s happened with their enrollments. You know, in state continues to be the same, but trying to bring in quality faculty members. They can’t do it. They can’t do it.

Courtney Brown: Yeah, people are doing some really good work within these universities across the nation. So I applaud them to continue to keep doing what they’re doing. But some of these policies are getting in the way, and that’s one of the reasons why we want to listen to student voice. What are students saying? And they’re saying that these policies are becoming problematic for them.

Drumm McNaughton: And so systemic barriers, a strong call for policies that increase access to education, reduce costs, and address the systemic barriers faced by [underrepresented groups.

Courtney Brown: Absolutely.

Conclusion and Final Thoughts


Drumm McNaughton: Well, as always, this has been a fascinating conversation. I wish we could get into, so what do we do? But that wasn’t the focus of the study. A lot of it is common sense, taking the results of the study and saying, “okay, this is what it said. How does it apply here? What can we do to change things?”

Courtney Brown: Yeah, I really think one of the things that is so important about this study is we are hearing from the consumers, the students, the potential students, those who had started and stopped out to really understand what their experience is, what do they want, what do they need. And I think we need to pay a lot more attention to these things, both to answer today’s questions, but also to begin to plan for the future.

Drumm McNaughton: Yeah, you’re spot on Courtney. Thank you. Thank you so much. Thanks to Lumina, thanks to Gallup for making you available for doing this study. It’s so critical that this information get out to people.

Courtney Brown: Yeah. Thank you for having me and letting me share it.

Three Takeaways for Higher Ed Presidents and Boards

Drumm McNaughton: Oh, it’s my pleasure. So, as we always do, our two last questions. Three takeaways for higher ed presidents and boards?

Courtney Brown: So my first takeaway would be ask your students, learn from your students. What do they need and how are they doing? Make sure you’re collecting data on their needs so you can serve them better.

I would also recommend, who aren’t your students, but could be your potential students, you can continue to iterate on your model, and improve your business model. Who else could you be serving in your communities and understand who they are.

And third, for both of these really look at how you can be more affordable. Again, cost comes up again and again for why people aren’t enrolling and why they aren’t able to stay enrolled, and we certainly don’t want to add to that 42 million number. So those would be my three takeaways. .

Bonus Takeaway

Drumm McNaughton: Great. I’m going to add one more to that on your first point is, put a student on your board of trustees.

Courtney Brown: Absolutely. Many schools do, but more could do that.

Drumm McNaughton: If you really want to hear how a student thinks put him or her on the board. Give them a vote.

Courtney Brown: Yeah. And some non traditional students. So don’t always pick the 19 year old superstar.

Drumm McNaughton: Exactly. Or your head of the Student Association, because they are going to be a superstar.

Courtney Brown: Absolutely.

Drumm McNaughton: So what’s next for you? What’s next for Lumina?

Courtney Brown: So as I mentioned a couple of times, Lumina has this 2025 goal. And as you may know, 2025 is right around the corner. And so Lumina is really thinking about what’s next and what does the nation need? The 2025 goal was, what the nation needed. That’s why we set that. So we’re really examining what does the nation need next? This is not about Lumina’s goal, it is really about the nation’s goal. And attainment continues to be important, but we’ve really got to think about what else does the nation need? Attainment is no longer sufficient, we talked a lot about value and workforce alignment and what is the purpose of education? What’s it for? And so Lumina’s unpacking all that, and we hope to focus on our next goal beyond 2025.

Drumm McNaughton: well, I look forward to seeing what that next goal is going to be and doing my part to help you attain it

Courtney Brown: Thank you so much. And thank you so much for having me again.

Drumm McNaughton: Oh, it’s my pleasure, Courtney. We always have a great conversation. You’re welcome back anytime.

Courtney Brown: Thank you.

Coming Up in Our Next Episode

Drumm McNaughton: Tune in next week when we welcome Madeline Pumariega back to the show. Madeline is the president of Miami Dade College, and one of their key initiatives is creating programs that focus on educating students on AI.

As an industry, we can’t run away from AI, and Madeline will show us how MDC has embraced it and the benefits it has had for the college and its students, who are now learning how to use AI ethically.



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