Millions of American adults either have no education beyond high school or have some college but no degree. Helping more adults attain a degree or certificate is crucial for our nation’s competitiveness—as of 2016, we ranked 10th in the world in postsecondary attainment—and for individuals’ economic prospects as well. By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require a degree or certificate.1 People with a degree or certificate earn substantially more than those with a high school diploma, are less likely to be unemployed and are more likely to have access to retirement plans and health care.2

Although traditional-age students outnumber adult learners in college, the percent of adults enrolling in college continues to grow.3 Yet adult students have lower graduation rates than their younger peers. One report found that only about 36 percent of students who enroll in college when they are 20 years or older complete a degree within six years, compared with 59 percent of students who enroll when they are 19 years old or younger.4

A number of factors may be at work: Adults going to college usually have other responsibilities, such as work or family, which may limit the hours and energy they can bring to their studies. Financial responsibilities such as rent or mortgage payments make it difficult to afford ever-increasing college tuition. Adults, as opposed to traditional students, do not come directly from high school but have taken years off from studies and may have forgotten academic concepts and habits and need developmental courses.5

Low-income adult students face these and other barriers. In general, lower-income students of all ages are less likely to graduate than their more economically advantaged peers and are more likely to face various challenges. They may lack guidance and information to help them make good decisions about college, they may have less financial support from their families and they are more likely to attend colleges with lower graduation rates.6

The path to educational attainment starts before someone is accepted into college. Higher education leaders, administrators, educators and policymakers need to understand adults’ aspirations, worries and needs as they consider whether college is worth it for them and, if it is, what college they will choose. What motivates adults to get a degree or certificate? Where do they go for help in making decisions about college? How will they fit school into their already busy lives? What makes a particular school appealing to them? How do lower-income adult prospective students’ motivations, concerns and decisions differ from those of their higher-income counterparts? Understanding the perspectives of adults who are considering going (back) to college or a university can position higher education institutions and other stakeholders to help adult learners make good choices and get the support they need to complete their degrees or certificates.

This research

In an effort to help higher education institutions and other stakeholders understand the unique needs of adults who are considering going (back) to school, Public Agenda, with support from The Kresge Foundation, conducted a representative survey of 18- to 55-year-olds who have graduated from high school and are not currently enrolled in a postsecondary educational program but are looking to enroll in a degree or certificate program within the next two years. We call this group “adult prospective students” to highlight that these Americans are making decisions about college as workers, parents or temporarily unemployed adults and that their circumstances are markedly different from those of high school students who are planning to enter a higher education institution right after graduation. See page X for a summary of how we define adult prospective students.

This research is a follow-up to our 2013 survey of adult prospective students.7 It is designed to explore adult prospective students’ perspectives on issues such as the following:

  • The connection between education and career goals
  • How adult prospective students plan to attend college or university
  • The types and sources of information that can help them make decisions about higher education
  • How they view various higher education options such as online education, competency-based education and guided pathways
  • How they view different approaches to making higher education more affordable and increasing student success

This survey includes some of the same questions we asked in 2013 to understand whether and how adult prospective students’ perspectives and expectations may have changed, but we’ve added new questions as well. Unlike the research conducted in 2013, this study was designed to explore the needs of low-income adults, who may require additional support, and of adults in cities, which may offer both more challenges and more opportunities for degree seekers.

Our findings and recommendations are based on survey data from a nationally representative sample of 1,328 adult prospective students that were collected via phone and online interviews from August 17 through November 12, 2017. In addition, we conducted three focus groups with adult prospective students to better understand their motivations, expectations, strategies and concerns as they consider their postsecondary options, including both adults with some college experience but no degree and adults with no college experience at all. Focus groups were held in New York City, New York; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and Los Angeles, California.

A complete methodology providing more detail, including sample characteristics and the survey’s topline with full question wording, can be found at

How this research defines adult prospective students:

  • They are 18- to 55-year-old Americans who do not hold an associate or bachelor’s degree (although they may have earned a postsecondary diploma or certificate).
  • They have finished high school but are not entering college straight out of high school.
  • They are not currently enrolled in any kind of higher education institution.
  • They are considering enrolling in a degree or certificate program and say it is likely that they will do so within two years.


1Anthony P. Carnevale, Nicole Smith and Jeff Strohl, “Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020,” Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2013,

2“Unemployment Rate 2.5 Percent for College Grads, 7.7 Percent for High School Dropouts, January 2017,” Economics Daily, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, February 7, 2017,; Jennifer Ma, Matea Pender and Meredith Welch, “Education Pays 2016: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society,” Trends in Higher Education Series, College Board, 2016,;

3National Center for Education Statistics, NCES Fast Facts,

4Doug Shapiro et al., “Completing College: A National View of Student Attainment Rates—Fall 2009 Cohort,” National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, November 16, 2015,

5Ben Miller, “Breaking with Tradition: Making Federal Grant Aid Work for Today’s Students,” Policy Brief, New America Education, 2014,

6Alanna Bjorklund-Young, “Family Income and the College Completion Gap,” Institute for Education Policy, Johns Hopkins School of Education, March 10, 2016, .

7Carolin Hagelskamp, David Schleifer and Christopher DiStasi, “Is College Worth It for Me?” (New York: Public Agenda, November 2013),

A Major Step: What Adults Without Degrees Say About Going (Back) to College

Media Type: PDF

This report from Public Agenda and sponsored by The Kresge Foundation offers insight into why some adults are considering going (back) to college and the challenges they think they'll face once they enroll.



Public Agenda knows what it takes to fuel progress on critical issues.
We need your support to keep things moving!

Join the Community


Take Action