Reasons Not to Go to College: 52 Statistics On Barriers to Tertiary Education

Reasons Not to Go to College: 52 Statistics On Barriers to Tertiary Education
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

UNESCO’s data from 2000 to 2014 reveals that global college enrollment has more than doubled from 100 million to 207 million (UNESCO, 2017). The increase in enrollment in higher education in the global stage is looking positive. However, there are many countries that are still lagging. In the United States, college enrollment has been in decline since 2015. And in the fall of 2019, even before the coronavirus pandemic happened, enrollment in the tertiary level went down by 1.3% (NSC Research Center, 2019, p. 2). For the first time in 10 years, the number of U.S. college attendees fell under 18 million.

There are many factors at work in the declining enrollment in the U.S. One of them is the growing cost of college education—the leading cause behind the student debt crisis that now stands at $1.6 trillion (EducationData, 2020). Another factor is the reality that a college diploma is no longer a golden ticket that can guarantee college graduates their dream jobs. Based on data gathered from the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 70 college majors have an accumulated average underemployment rate of 42.9% (Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 2019).

Other countries, however, have different reasons, including the extent of poverty experienced in less developed regions and the lack of access to a well-equipped college institution. Other extreme cases, such as living in conflict areas are also a barrier to obtaining a college degree. In some countries, gender also plays a role in whether you can pursue a college education. And just recently, the coronavirus pandemic added to the growing number of reasons not to go to college.

In this article, we will look into the relevant statistics behind the reasons for not going to college either by choice or by circumstances.

Background: College Enrollment Statistics

Before we delve into the barriers that hinder students from pursuing college education, let us take a look at relevant global statistics for an overview of what higher education is like in different parts of the world:

  • Europe and Central Asia came second with 62.07% tertiary education GER.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa had the lowest tertiary education GER at only 8.9%.


  • In 2018, 44.9 million students in China were enrolled in tertiary education.
  • Afghanistan and Sri Lanka recorded less than 400,000 tertiary level students in 2018.
    In East Asia and the Pacific, 26% of the students who enroll in primary school might be able to enroll in tertiary education (Fleet, et. al, 2012).
  • 22% of Arab States’ primary school students are predicted to access higher education (Fleet et al., 2012).
    In South and West Asia, only 17% of students who enroll in primary school might be able to reach college.

Source: World Bank


The following statistics reflect the enrollment and attendance of tertiary level students in European Union countries in 2017 (EuroStat, 2020).

  • In 2017, there were a total of 19.8 million students studying at the tertiary level in European Union countries. In the same year, a total of 20,837.4 million students were enrolled in lower secondary, upper secondary, and post-secondary non-tertiary levels.
  • 71% of primary school students in Europe are likely to enroll in tertiary education (Fleet et. al, 2012).
  • 61% of tertiary level students in European Union countries were taking up bachelor’s degrees, 27.7% were taking master’s degrees, 3.8% were studying for doctoral degrees, and 7.4% were following short-cycle tertiary courses.
  • 54% of the students at the tertiary level in European Union countries were women.
  • Nearly a quarter of 19.8 million tertiary level students were studying business, administration, or law.
  • Germany had the largest population of tertiary level students at 3.1 million or 15.6% of the European Union’s tertiary student population in 2017.

North and South America

  • In 2014, North America had the highest gross enrollment ratio (GER) in tertiary education with 84.03% (Our World in Data, n.d.).
  • In Canada, the number of students enrolled in post-secondary institutions in 2018 reached 2.12 million—a 0.04 million increase from the previous school year (StatCan, 2020).
  • In the U.S., the college enrollment rate of students from 22 to 24 years old has been on a steady decline since 2011.
  • Mexico’s population of students attending higher education institutions has increased from 2.9 million in 2009 to 3.9 million in 2018 (Pasquali, 2019).
  • On average, the poorest 50% of the population only represented 25% of higher education students in 2013 in Latin America and the Caribbean region (World Bank, 2017).


  • From 1970-2013, Sub-Saharan Africa recorded a tertiary gross enrollment ratio (GER) of 4.3% annually, which is higher than the global average of 2.8% (Darvas et al., 2017).
  • Despite Sub-Saharan Africa’s GER growth within a period of 40+ years, the region’s tertiary GER remains the lowest globally (Darvas et al., 2017).
  • In Sub-Saharan Africa, only 6% of children who enroll in primary education will be able to access tertiary education (Fleet et al., 2012).
  • In Northern Africa, the number of students enrolled in the tertiary level increased from 425,693 in 2017 to 453,179 in 2018 (UIS, n.d.)
  • In 2019, 45.7% of South African college-age youths (aged 19) were not studying, 41.% were still at the secondary level, and only 6.4% were enrolled at universities (South African Market Insights, 2020).

Barriers to Pursuing College Education

While some students are bent on attending college and even endure AP vs dual enrollment to get a head start, others are hindered by certain circumstances to continue their education.

Despite the increase in enrollment rate in some regions and countries, the growing population of students who are not pursuing higher education is becoming more apparent. In the U.S., one of the main reasons behind the decline in college enrollment and attendance is the high cost of college education (College Board, 2019). Even with the attraction of the most beautiful colleges in the U.S., the cost will be a barrier to students who want to enroll. In fact, the rapidly increasing costs of higher education are causing widespread anxiety about student loans among American households, including an emerging concern of a likely higher education “bubble” (Reilly 2011, cited in Hemelt & Marcotte, 2016).

High Cost of College

  • For in-state tuition and fees at public four-year institutions, the average total tuition fee for the school year 2019-2020 is $21,950, including room and board charges. And even if students are granted financial aid, they still need to ask, “Does FAFSA cover off campus housing?”
  • Average out-of-state tuition and fees at public four-year institutions increased by 2.4%, which brings the total charges to $38,330 for the school year 2019-2020.
  • The tuition and fees for the school year 2019-2020 at private nonprofit four-year institutions rose by 3.4%, bringing the average total charges to $49,870.
  • From 2009 to 2020, the published cost of in-state tuition and fees at four-year public institutions has increased at an average rate of 2.2% annually beyond inflation.
  • For in-state students attending four-year public institutions and living on campus, 39% of their total budget is allotted to tuition and fees.


According to Taylor (2005), poverty in the U.S. disproportionately affects African American and Latino students. African American and Latino children are more likely to attend high-poverty schools (National Center for Education Statistics, 2004).

  • More than 14% of the nation’s high school students, or about 1.8 million teenagers, attend schools where at least three-quarters live in poverty (GAO, 2018).
  • 17% of high schools in the U.S. in the school year 2015-2016 were considered high-poverty schools (GAO, 2018).

Based on education data for the school year 2015-2016, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that students who attended relatively poor and small schools were less likely to have access to courses that could help them prepare for college (GAO, 2018). When it comes to higher education enrollment rates, students from low-income households lag behind students from high-income households by a large margin; conversely, economically-challenged students are more likely than their rich counterparts to drop out of school after enrolling (Aud et al., 2013, cited in Cilesiz & Drotos, 2016).

  • The access to advanced placement courses such as calculus and physics decreased as the level of school poverty increased.
  • Four-year public college institutions expect student applicants to have completed three to four math and science credits in high school.

Source: GAO

In other parts of the globe, poverty also plays a key role in preventing a significant portion of the population from having access to tertiary education, among other reasons like gender discrimination, political conflict, and disabilities.

  • In all countries (except high-income countries in Europe and North America), only 18 of the poorest youth for every 100 of the richest youth graduate from high school (GEM Report, 2020), and an even smaller number has the opportunity to go to college.


Despite the global effort for education to be accessible to all, there still are countries where women are marginalized (OECD Better Life Index, n.d.):

  • There are at least 20 countries, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa, where young women from rural areas cannot complete secondary school (GEM Report, 2020), much less have access to tertiary education.

An interesting reversal of the historical pattern, however, is witnessed in the countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). OECD is an international organization currently made up of 37 countries whose contributions to the improvement of global education include helping individuals and nations identify and develop the knowledge and skills to improve employment, personal and financial status, as well as promote social inclusion. In the majority of OECD countries, the percentage of women who complete tertiary education is higher than men (OECD, n.d.).

  • 39% of women in most OECD countries between the ages of 25 and 64 are more likely to have a college degree compared to 33% of men in the same age range.


According to Wodon and Alasuutari (2018), there are more than 1 billion people around the world who experience some form of disability. Depending on the severity, a disability can place an individual at a disadvantage when it comes to enrolling and completing their education, especially if there are no facilities and educators who are properly equipped to cater to the needs of students with disabilities.

In the U.S., the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) conducted a study on students reported to have disabilities to help develop an understanding of their postsecondary experiences. The study which covers student data from 2001 to 2009 yielded the following results (Newman et al., 2011):

  • 60% of young adults with disabilities were reported to have continued on to post-secondary education within an eight-year period after graduating from high school.
  • Only 19% of young adults with disabilities were reported to have enrolled in 4-year colleges or universities.

Percentage of U.S. students with disabilities who pursued post-secondary education

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Source: NLTS2

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Meanwhile, in some countries, the practice of segregation continues to exist.

  • An average of 26% of adolescents with disabilities are out of school in six countries (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2018).

Military Service and Conflict Areas

In some countries, enlistment in the armed forces also affects a student’s decision to pursue college or not.

  • As of 2012, 56% of U.S. military service members had a high school education compared to the 30% who had some college education (Lauff et al., 2018).
  • Only 17% of students with military service had earned a bachelor’s degree in 2012 compared to 36% of students who did not serve in the military (Lauff et al., 2018).

In conflict areas across the globe, the opportunity for children to obtain college education has been cut short at the primary and secondary levels.

  • According to UNICEF, 17 million school-age children and youth are refugees in countries hit by conflicts.
  • In Yemen, more than 1,200 academic institutions have been damaged by the conflict and occupied by armed groups (Coughlan, 2018).
  • In Uganda, 82% of the 1.5 million refugees are women and children whose access to education has been cut because of the war.
  • Syria’s “lost generation” is made up of 335,000 children who have missed out on education for years after they became refugees in Jordan (Coughlan, 2018).
  • In Nigeria, Boko Haram violence has displaced 1.8 million people, including school-age children (Coughlan, 2018).

The COVID-19 Pandemic

In 2020, the coronavirus outbreak has taken a massive toll not only on the source of livelihood of people around the world but also on education. The coronavirus pandemic has created a worldwide higher education crisis (Raaper & Brown, 2020). In the U.S., higher education leaders were able to quickly transition students to remote learning in order to complete the 2019 academic year. The bigger challenge, however, is when and how to open the academic year of 2020 in the face of COVID-19 (Kim et al., 2020).

In a survey conducted by the American Council on Education, 192 presidents of higher education institutions in the U.S. were asked to choose the most pressing concerns they have, including their institutions’ capacity and needs in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic (Turk et al., 2020).

Source: American Council on Education

  • 86% of presidents claim that their biggest concern is the number of fall and summer enrollment.
  • 65% of presidents state that they are worried about long-term financial viability.
  • 54% of presidents at public four-year institutions are most concerned about providing emergency aid to students.
  • Meanwhile, 45% of presidents at private four-year institutions choose “laying off faculty and/or staff” as the third pressing issue they have.
  • 49% of presidents are considering merging or eliminating academic programs as part of the actions they might deem necessary to take.

In a recent survey by OneClass, more than 10,839 students from 255 colleges and universities in the U.S. share how COVID-19 has directly affected their pursuit of college education (OneClass Blog, 2020):

  • 50.9% of respondents reveal that they are facing tuition financing problems.
  • 41.8% of respondents claim that they have not been negatively affected by the pandemic.
  • 7.3% of the students are “changing gears” and do something else.
  • 1.5% of students who can no longer afford their tuition are leaving college to seek full-time employment.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, it can thus be anticipated that the ongoing disintegration of the higher education’s social and physical environments will have a considerable impact on students and that the most adversely affected will be those from disadvantaged households (Montacute, 2020).

Possible options indicated by students who can no longer afford tuition due to COVID-19

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Source: OneClass

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The Future of College Education

COVID-19 has impacted 80% of the world’s student population with nearly 60 million of previously enrolled college students currently dealing with disruption in their studies (Martin & Furiv, 2020). While there are colleges and universities that are capable of providing their students with online education, this option is not applicable to the majority of higher education institutions, especially in countries that are not economically prepared to address not only the ongoing but the aftereffects of COVID-19. With the employment rate also facing its own crisis due to the pandemic, students are dealt with an even tougher challenge. Besides, there are companies that don’t require a degree, making it seem reasonable to not finish a degree at all.

Nevertheless, just recently, the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning launched an international research project, which aims to help countries identify possible policies and instruments supporting flexible learning pathways or FLPs. But with the pandemic still ongoing, the implementation of possible proposed actions will have to wait. Meanwhile, it is a good idea to stay motivated with these employee engagement quotes that are suitable for students, too, as opportunities to study may present themselves.



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