The 20 Million Missing Graduates: New Study by University of the People/Harris Poll finds 65% of Americans Would Go Back to Complete Their College Degrees — If Time and/or Money Weren’t Barriers

Pasadena (May 29, 2018) 

It’s commencement season and this year in America nearly four million1 graduates are readying their cap and gowns. But there’s a huge group of American students we rarely consider; those who started but never finished their degree. A new study titled, “The Opportunity Cost of Not Having a College Degree” points to affordability and flexibility as today’s biggest hurdles to completing higher education. 65% (or 20 million) of Americans surveyed who have not completed a college degree and are no longer taking classes (“noncompleters”) would want to go back to school if they could afford to (59%), and/or if classes were flexible around their schedule (58%), according to the study.  The study, conducted online by The Harris Poll on behalf of University of the People among over 450 noncompleters, examines Americans who started but never completed higher education.   


The nation-wide poll identified that the main reasons these individuals are not able to complete their college degree at this time —despite the pervasive belief that life would be better with one—are a lack of time and financial inability. 72% of American noncompleters feel they would have better career opportunities if they had finished their degree.


Shai Reshef, President of University of the People, says, “31 million people started higher education but had to drop out, many of them due to financial reasons and others simply because it wasn’t the right time for them to complete their degree. Most American noncompleters recognize the benefits of higher education, but either due to their lifestyle or lack of finances they are prevented from achieving this. Making higher education flexible, affordable, and high quality is the only solution for accommodating the millions of students who need to fit their studies around busy family, work, and life schedules. This is where the future of higher education is heading. This is exactly what we set out to accomplish at University of the People.”


Ithaka S+R Managing Director Catharine Bond Hill, an economist, former President of Vassar College, and University of the People President’s Council member, says, “For a nation that faces a widespread skilled labor shortage, coupled with a growing class of driven but unqualified workers, the findings of this study are critical. Life presents seemingly insurmountable obstacles for many students, but by stopping their education they risk the loss of the significant lifetime benefits of a degree: benefits which extend both to the individual and to the economy at large. This includes better jobs and socioeconomic mobility.  Those with a college degree, for example, have median earnings that are about 65% higher than those with a high school diploma.”


The survey’s findings help explain the reasons underpinning the growth in students enrolling at this non-profit, tuition-free, accredited American online university. Since its accreditation in 2014, UoPeople’s enrollment has expanded from 500 to more than 14,000 students worldwide. Currently, over 6,000 of those students reside in the U.S. Over 90% are working while studying; 70% have children. And almost 60% indicate they are the first in their families to attend a college or university. 


“The poll’s findings validate what we already knew based on our student body, which heavily comprises working adults. People are short on time and on money,” adds Reshef. “The most expensive degree is not the degree from Harvard or Cambridge. The most expensive degree is the degree started but never finished. It’s the cost of not having a college degree that Americans should be most worried about. The question now is, how can someone today afford not to get a higher education?”


Research Method:

This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of University of the People from April 24-26, 2018 among 2,026 U.S. adults ages 18 and older, among whom 459 completed some college and are not currently enrolled in classes. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, please contact Tawny Saez, Head of PR at The Harris Poll, [email protected].


About University of the People:


University of the People (UoPeople) is the first non-profit, tuition-free, American accredited online university. Dedicated to opening access to higher education globally, UoPeople is designed to help qualified high school graduates overcome financial, geographic, political, and personal constraints keeping them from collegiate studies.  The university currently offers two-year associate’s and four-year bachelor’s degree programs in business administration, computer science, and health science as well as an MBA program. Founded in 2009, UoPeople has partnered with New York University (NYU), University of California (UC) Berkeley, and The University of Edinburgh to accept students. UoPeople is supported by The Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, Fondation Hoffmann, and companies such as HP, Google, Microsoft, Intel, Western Union, Estee Lauder and many more. Learn more at @UoPeople


About The Harris Poll:


The Harris Poll is one of the longest-running surveys in the U.S.  tracking public opinion, motivations and social sentiment since 1963 that is now part of Harris Insights & Analytics, a global consulting and market research firm that delivers social intelligence for transformational times. The Harris Poll works with clients in three primary areas; building twenty-first-century corporate reputation, crafting brand strategy and performance tracking, and earning organic media through public relations research. Learn more at @HarrisPoll


Contact: Sarah Vanunu

Director of Public Relations, University of the People

US: 626-219-8402; [email protected]