Seventy-one percent of adults who are planning to pursue a degree or certificate want to do so to expand their career options. This includes 44 percent looking to get a different kind of job or career altogether and 27 percent looking to get ahead in their current job or career. Only 25 percent say they want to do so in order to get a good education and learn about the world; see figure 1.
Figure 1. Percent of adult prospective students who indicate the following is the main reason they want to get a degree/certificate.8
The most often cited reason to pursue a postsecondary credential is to get a different kind of job or career.
In our focus groups, some adult prospective students expressed frustration that they had to get a degree or certificate in order to advance their careers. Some believed they already have the skills they need but that employers are just looking for a piece of paper. For example, a woman in Fort Lauderdale who is considering getting a degree explained, “I lost out on a really good job about a year and a half ago. The upper management told me, ‘You gotta get that piece of paper.’ He told me, ‘I went through college. I didn’t really care about it, but I knew that if I didn’t get that degree, I wasn’t going to get where I am.’”9
A woman in Los Angeles said, “I fell into a job with an insurance company at an entry-level position. Fifteen years later, I moved my way on up and I feel like I’ve reached the maximum capacity without a degree. I don’t really think I can go any further without the degree.”
Public Agenda’s previous research found that the general public’s confidence in higher education is waning. In a 2016 survey, only 42 percent of Americans said that a college education is necessary for success in today’s work world, whereas 55 percent of Americans said so in 2009, the last time the question was asked.10
This survey found that a little over half of adult prospective students—55 percent—think a college degree is a wise investment for them despite the cost. But their confidence in the value of the degree depends on what degree they plan to get.
Adults considering an associate degree or certificate appear more doubtful about the value of doing so compared with adults considering a bachelor’s degree; see figure 2.11 These doubts about the value of an associate degree or certificate may be justified. In May 2016, 21 percent of entry-level occupations required a bachelor’s degree, while only 8 percent required an associate degree or postsecondary nondegree award. The median annual full-time earnings of those with an associate degree was about $40,600, compared to about $60,000 for those who have a bachelor’s degree.12
Fewer adults looking to complete an associate degree or certificate think doing so is a wise investment.
At any age, attending college requires time and resources—and can leave people with substantial debt. Over 40 percent of student loan borrowers owe at least $20,000, and about a third are not able to pay down their debt within five years.13 Compared with recent high school graduates, more adults planning to pursue a degree or certificate may have to balance their studies with jobs and other responsibilities.
Not surprisingly, we found that adult prospective students’ top worries about pursuing a degree or certificate are taking on too much debt and balancing work and family responsibilities with the demands of school; see figure 3.
For example, a woman in our Fort Lauderdale focus group expressed her concerns about staying on top of family and work responsibilities when she starts school. “Mommy has to make sure that while she’s in school my kids are not being neglected. If I don’t go to school, how can I have a stable life for them? If I go back to school, it’s gonna be hard. I still have to work and I still have to take care of my responsibilities.” A woman in our New York City focus group pointed out, “If you ain’t got a strong support system, it’s not gonna work as far as somebody being home and taking care of the kids. Somebody being able to make a bed or somebody being able to cook. If you don’t have those things and you’re not on the same page, it’s not gonna work.”
Most adult prospective students worry about debt and about how to balance school with their work and family.
Although more than half of adult prospective students are worried about factors that have been linked to dropping out — such as keeping up with family and work demands and being academically ready14 — only 30 percent of them are concerned about dropping out; see figure 3. Yet people who start a degree at an older age are less likely to complete it. One study found that six years after enrolling in a two-year or four-year program, 48 percent of those who enrolled when they were over the age of 20 did not complete a degree and were no longer enrolled in a program. In comparison, only 26 percent of those who enrolled when they were 20 or younger had these outcomes.15
While policymakers and media often focus on rising college tuition, there are other costs involved in attending school, such as textbooks, transportation and housing. This research found that 67 percent of adult prospective students worry about debt and 57 percent worry about accessing or affording school supplies; see figure 3. Moreover, some say that attending college will make it harder for them to afford necessities such as rent or mortgage payments, transportation or food; see figure 4.
Previous research has demonstrated that these worries are well-founded. In 2017–18, 61 percent of a student’s budget at public two-year colleges went to expenses other than tuition and fees, such as books, supplies and transportation. At a public four-year college, 31 percent of a student’s budget went to expenses other than tuition and fees when paying in-state tuition.16 About half of all students at two-year and four-year colleges are food insecure. At least 33 percent of students at two-year colleges are housing insecure, including up to 14 percent of students who are actually homeless.17
Nearly half of adult prospective students think that attending college will make it harder for them to afford rent or mortgage payments.
A woman in our New York City focus group who is considering getting a degree said that these factors may affect her decision about whether to go back to school. “I hesitate to apply for school because living in Brooklyn is expensive. I have a $1,400 rent that I pay. So do I just want to work and live paycheck to paycheck, or do I want to go to school and stop work? At the end of the day I feel going to school is gonna be better in the long run, but you have to pay these bills.”
A woman in our Los Angeles focus group added: “I haven’t gone to school yet because I’m trying to find a school that’s close enough to me where it’s not gonna cost me an arm and a leg to drive a car to get there.”
Forty-five percent of adult prospective students who have an annual household income of $40,000 or under believe that it will be harder for them to afford transportation, while only 33 percent of adult prospective students whose household income is over $40,000 believe this. Forty-one percent of adult prospective students with lower household incomes say that it will be harder for them to afford food, while 36 percent of their higher-income counterparts say this.
Most adult prospective students will use multiple sources to pay for college, with 82 percent saying they will use two or more of the five sources we asked about. Applying for grants and scholarships and using their own earnings or savings are the most common ways adult prospective students plan to pay for college; see figure 5. However, while 70 percent say they will use money they earn or have saved, very few—6 percent—say this is the only way they think they will pay for college. Relatively few of them expect to receive help from sources such as family, friends or employers.
Because so many adults planning to get a degree or certificate are concerned about taking on too much debt, it is not surprising that more are planning to apply for grants and scholarships than to take out loans. But they may be too hopeful about getting scholarships: In 2017, only 8.6 million students received Federal Pell Grants or Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, compared with 13.1 million students who received direct subsidized loans, direct unsubsidized loans or Perkins Loans.18
More adult prospective students think they will apply for grants and scholarships, and fewer say they will apply for student loans.
It should not come as a surprise that 69 percent of adult prospective students believe it is a very good idea to require schools to offer comprehensive financial aid counseling. After all, while 75 percent say they will apply for grants or scholarships and 58 percent will apply for loans, 57 percent of adult prospective students are worried about understanding the financial aid application process and 67 percent are worried about taking on too much debt.
While most schools offer some form of financial aid counseling, its quality and intensity may vary. For example, any student who receives a federal loan must complete entrance and exit counseling interviews. While some schools provide financial aid counselors to conduct these interviews, others simply offer a link to an online interview.
Starting at a community college and transferring to a four-year institution can be a cost-effective way to earn a bachelor’s degree. But many institutions and states do not have effective transfer policies in place. Therefore many students who try to transfer previously earned credits are unable to do so, wasting time and money.19 Our research found that most adult prospective students will be looking to transfer at some point. While 80 percent of them say they are looking to complete a bachelor’s degree, very few adult prospective students—only 9 percent—will enroll directly into a bachelor’s program. Fifty-six percent will transfer into a bachelor’s program at some point; see figure 6.
Not only is transferring a difficult process, but the timing of when one transfers matters. There are benefits to completing an associate degree first—rather than taking only a few courses and then trying to transfer into a bachelor’s program. It can be a less expensive pathway to a degree and confers greater labor market benefits.20 Thirty percent of adult prospective students plan to transfer into a bachelor’s program after completing an associate degree. Yet 26 percent of adults considering a degree are looking only to complete some courses or receive a certificate prior to transferring into a bachelor’s program.
Most adult prospective students will complete an associate degree or certificate or receive some college credits before transferring to a bachelor’s program.
Thirty-one percent of adult prospective students say they will figure out what they want to study once they are in school, an increase from 2013 when only 21 percent said they would figure out what they want to study once they were in school; see figure 7.21 More adult prospective students with annual household incomes $40,000 or less do not know what they want to study compared with their higher-income counterparts; see figure 8.
Entering a program of study early is correlated with successfully completing a degree or transferring.22 Some institutions have created guided pathway programs to provide students with road maps or highly structured plans of study.23 The growing share of adult prospective students who may be entering college unsure of what they want to study demonstrates the need for such programs, which can help students make sense of their options and get on a path to a major and to timely graduation.
Compared with our research from 2013, this survey found that more adult prospective students are looking to pursue a degree or certificate without knowing what they want to study.
More low-income adult prospective students plan to enroll without knowing what they want to study.
Previous research has found that students who are enrolled part-time are less likely to graduate and tend to spend more money on tuition.24 Yet we found that 46 percent of adult prospective students plan to go to school part-time. Only 24 percent plan to go full-time, and 29 percent are not yet sure.
However, online courses have lower completion rates than in-person classes.25 Adult prospective students appear to perceive a difference in quality. Sixty-eight percent of adults agree that although online courses are more flexible, students get more out of in-person courses. Even among those who are looking to take all or most of their classes online, 63 percent indicate that in-person classes are better for students; see figure 10.
Compared with our 2013 study, this survey revealed that more adult prospective students are looking to take most of their classes online.
Over half of those looking to take their courses mostly or all online believe that students get more out of in-person courses.
Rural adult prospective students differ from their urban counterparts.
Rural adult prospective students feel they have fewer schools in the area in which they live that are right for them.
Adults considering a degree in rural areas are looking to take more classes online compared with adults in urban areas.
In both urban and rural areas most think that in-person classes are better. Sixty-five percent of adult prospective students in rural areas and 70 percent of those in urban areas agree that although online courses are more flexible, overall, students get more out of in-person courses than they do out of online courses.
Choosing a school can be difficult and overwhelming, yet it is a very important first step in the process of getting a degree or certificate. Students who choose colleges or universities that fit their financial, academic and geographic needs are more likely to complete their degrees.26 Therefore, it is essential to understand what adults are looking for as they consider going (back) to school in order to help them make good choices. As a man in our focus group in Los Angeles pointed out, “Anywhere else I can return an item 30 days later and say this didn’t work for me. But with education you can’t necessarily do that. Once you’re there, you’re stuck.”
Similar to our 2013 findings, most adult prospective students say that when choosing a school, it is absolutely essential that instructors care about students and know how to teach; see figure 13. Yet in 2015, part-time faculty, adjuncts, lecturers or graduate assistantships made up 50 percent of all faculty appointments at institutions that offer postsecondary education. While adjuncts and other non-tenure-track faculty are often skilled and caring teachers and scholars, they are typically paid per course, have heavy workloads and may therefore lack the support and job security to live up to their full potential in helping students succeed.27
Adult prospective students’ priorities are finding high-quality teachers, securing affordable tuition and gaining workplace-relevant skills and knowledge.
Sixty-six percent of adult prospective students say that affordable tuition and fees are absolutely essential; see figure 13. This aligns with our finding that many of them are concerned about taking on too much debt. Most adult prospective students also think it is absolutely essential to gain skills that are relevant to the workplace—which is not surprising, since 71 percent of them want to get a degree or certificate to broaden their career options.
While 56 percent of adult prospective students would like to transfer into a bachelor’s program after receiving some college credit, a certificate or an associate degree, only 43 percent of those who indicate that they plan on transferring say it is absolutely essential to know that students from a particular school have successfully transferred; see figure 13.
Adult prospective students would also be more attracted to schools that provide support to help them graduate—such as having advisers or tutors who would work closely with them or lay out exactly which courses to take; see figure 14. As mentioned in Finding 4, many colleges and universities are exploring how to institute pathway programs that would guide students to courses, into majors and toward graduation. Our findings indicate that adult prospective students may be more attracted to schools that have these types of programs.
Adult prospective students would be more attracted to schools that would help them find jobs and provide support to help them stay on track.
Sixty-five percent of adult prospective students think it is absolutely essential to gain skills and knowledge that are directly relevant to the workplace, but only 56 percent would be a lot more interested in a school if they knew there would be opportunities for internships or other work experience. Internships provide benefits including hands-on training, better job prospects, higher job satisfaction upon employment and an easier transition from school to work.28 But adults simply may not have time to complete an internship or may already be working full-time jobs while in school.
Experts and policymakers have been working to make information about the cost and quality of colleges and universities more transparent. For example, the U.S. Department of Education created the College Scorecard, a website that compares colleges across metrics including graduation rate, retention and student debt. Theoretically, greater transparency should allow prospective students of any age to identify and choose higher-performing institutions.29 But do these metrics matter to adult prospective students?
Eighty-nine percent of adult prospective students are confident that they will choose the right school. Although 49 percent say, considering the area in which they live, that there are a lot or some schools that are right for them, 48 percent say that there are only a few or no schools at all. Fifty-one percent of adult prospective students with annual household incomes under $40,000 and 42 percent of those with household incomes above $40,000 say this; see figure 15.
More low-income adult prospective students report having few or no schools that are right for them in the area where they live.
Variations between higher- and lower-income adult prospective students remain significant when taking into consideration a range of demographics such as location, gender, age and race and ethnicity.
Interestingly, when it comes to some of the metrics that experts think are important to know about a school, 51 percent or less of adult prospective students think any of them are absolutely essential—including only 28 percent who think it is absolutely essential to know a school’s dropout rate; see figure 16.
Such information could help adult prospective students identify which schools are most likely to meet their needs. For example, while 66 percent of adult prospective students say they would be a lot more interested in a school if it helped them find a job in the field they wanted, only 51 percent think it is absolutely essential to know the number of graduates who get a job in the field they study. Likewise, while 67 percent are worried about taking on too much debt, only 50 percent think it is absolutely essential to know the amount of debt that students usually graduate with, and only 41 percent think it is absolutely essential to know the amount of money graduates typically earn.
One possible reason adult prospective students may not believe these metrics are absolutely essential is that they may think students themselves are solely responsible for graduating or finding a job—rather than linking these outcomes to the policies and practices of higher education institutions.
For example, a man in our New York City focus group said, “I think what you get out of it is what you put into it. There could be schools where you don’t get the type of advisement or advising that you really need. But you have to be a person who’s going to continuously go back to that counselor over and over again until they know who you are and they realize that if they do not help you, you will help yourself.”
Most adult prospective students do not believe that it is absolutely essential to know the statistics about schools that experts prioritize.
In order to help adult prospective students make decisions about which schools will meet their needs, it is essential to know the sources they would rely on to make these decisions. Some of the adult prospective students we surveyed may be actively searching for information about which schools are best for them, while others may have not yet begun their college search. Regardless, our findings show that colleges themselves clearly have important roles to play in helping adults start their journey toward a degree or certificate.
When it comes to choosing a school, adult prospective students say they would rely on an average of four of the seven sources of information that we asked about. In a variety of ways, schools themselves are particularly important sources: Most adult prospective students say they would rely on the school’s website, a current student or graduate of the school, or a school’s recruiter or admissions adviser; see figure 17. More would use the Internet than books to compare schools.
During focus groups, adult prospective students discussed the important roles schools play as trusted sources of information. A man in our New York City focus group said, “I would say going to the schools and getting to talk with one of the deans, that’s probably the best thing to do. Not just looking online because that’s just people’s opinions.” A woman in our Fort Lauderdale focus group said, “You could just go on the school’s actual website. It has whatever I’m looking for, let’s say tuition cost. You can find everything on there. I haven’t tried Facebook yet, but usually I’ve just gone straight to the school’s web page.”
When choosing a school, adult prospective students think faculty can play an important role.
Not only do adult prospective students say they would rely on schools in a variety of ways to help them make decisions, but 76 percent say that talking to faculty or sitting in on classes would help them a great deal or somewhat in choosing a school; see figure 18. Doing so may help them evaluate whether teachers care about students and know how to teach, which most say is absolutely essential.
Most adult prospective students think faculty can help them choose a school.
Overall, 72 percent of adult prospective students think that nonprofit organizations that work with adults going back to school can help them a great deal or somewhat when it comes to choosing a school. But rural adult prospective students differ from their urban counterparts in their view on nonprofit organizations’ potential roles. In urban areas, 77 percent of adult prospective students think that nonprofit organizations would be helpful, compared with only 64 percent who think this in rural areas. This could reflect the fact that there are fewer nonprofits in rural areas or that urban adult prospective students are more trusting of or more willing to use these organizations.
With only 36 percent of students who enroll in college at age 20 or older managing to complete a degree within six years, what more can be done to help adult students graduate?30 Colleges alone cannot address the various challenges that students may face, such as balancing work and school and affording daily expenses. There are other entities in the community that may be better positioned to support students as they encounter these challenges.
Most adult prospective students favor a variety of roles for employers, businesses and community organizations in helping students succeed in college; see figure 19. For example, while only 40 percent of adult prospective students say they would rely on their employer for information to help them choose the right school, 67 percent think that it is a very good idea to encourage employers to support employees who want to earn a degree or certificate.
Although few adult prospective students think it is absolutely essential to know a school’s transfer rate, most support the idea of making the transfer process easier. Fifty-nine percent of adult prospective students think it is a very good idea to create partnerships between schools so that students can transfer easily from associate degree programs to bachelor’s degree programs; see figure 19.
Adult prospective students support multiple ideas for how the community can help them complete a degree or certificate.
Support for free college tuition for low- and middle-income students varies by political affiliation among adult prospective students; see figure 20. When Public Agenda surveyed the general public in 2016, we reached similar findings. Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to say it is a very or somewhat good idea to use taxpayer money to make public colleges free for students from low- and middle-income families, with Independents falling in between.31
Few Republican adult prospective students support using tax payer money to make public colleges free for low- or middle-income students.
8Respondents were asked at the beginning of the survey if they were planning on pursuing a degree or certificate. Some subsequent questions were programmed so that respondents were asked about their intended postsecondary outcome. These questions are identified by degree/certificate in chart titles.
9Focus group quotations have been minimally edited for clarity.
10David Schleifer and Rebecca Silliman, “What’s the Payoff?” (New York: Public Agenda, October 3, 2016), https://www.publicagenda.org/media/research-brief-whats-the-payoff.
11Adults considering a bachelor’s degree includes adults who plan to enroll directly into a bachelor’s program and those who plan to transfer into a bachelor’s program after receiving some credit or completing an associate degree.
12“37 Percent of May 2016 Employment in Occupations Typically Requiring Postsecondary Education,” Economics Daily, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, June 28, 2017, https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2017/37-percent-of-may-2016-employment-in-occupations-typically-requiring-postsecondary-education.htm; “Weekly Earnings by Educational Attainment in First Quarter 2016,” Economics Daily, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 11, 2016, https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2016/weekly-earnings-by-educational-attainment-in-first-quarter-2016.htm.
13“CFPB Finds Percentage of Borrowers with $20K in Student Debt Doubled over Last Decade,” Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, August 16, 2017, https://www.consumerfinance.gov/about-us/newsroom/cfpb-finds-percentage-borrowers-20k-student-debt-doubled-over-last-decade/.
14Jean Johnson, Jon Rochkind, Amber N. Ott and Samantha DuPont, “With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them” (New York: Public Agenda, 2009), https://www.publicagenda.org/pages/with-their-whole-lives-ahead-of-them.
15Doug Shapiro et al., “Completing College: A National View of Student Completion Rates—Fall 2011 Cohort,” National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, December 13, 2017, https://nscresearchcenter.org/signaturereport14/.
16Jennifer Ma et al., “Trends in College Pricing 2017, ” Trends in Higher Education Series, College Board, 2017, https://trends.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/2017-trends-in-college-pricing_1.pdf.
17Katharine M. Broton and Sara Goldrick-Rab, “Going Without: An Exploration of Food and Housing Insecurity Among Undergraduates,” Educational Researcher 47, no. 2 (March 2018): 121–33, https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X17741303.
18Sandy Baum et al., “Trends in Student Aid 2017,” Trends in Higher Education Series, College Board, October 2017. https://trends.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/2017-trends-student-aid_0.pdf.
19Davis Jenkins and John Fink, “Tracking Transfer: New Measures of Institutional and State Effectiveness in Helping Community College Students Attain Bachelor’s Degrees,” Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University, January 2016, https://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/publications/tracking-transfer-institutional-state-effectiveness.html; K. C. Deane et al., “Tackling Transfer: Partners in Learning: Improving Preparation of Community College Transfer Students for Upper Division Coursework,” Association of American Colleges & Universities, 2016, https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/AM16/Transfer%20Partners%20in%20Learning%20PPT.pdf.
20Clive Belfield, “The Economic Benefits of Attaining an Associate Degree Before Transfer: Evidence from North Carolina,” Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University, July 2013, https://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/publications/economic-benefits-associate-degree-before-transfer.html.
21Hagelskamp, Schleifer and DiStasi, “Is College Worth It for Me?”
22Thomas Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars and Davis Jenkins, “What We Know About Guided Pathways,” Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University, April 2015, https://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/publications/what-we-know-about-guided-pathways-packet.html.
23Bailey, Jaggars and Jenkins, “What We Know About Guided Pathways.”
24Paul Fain, “Full-Time Finishers,” Inside Higher Ed, April 19, 2017, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/04/19/students-who-attend-college-full-time-even-one-semester-are-more-likely-graduate.
25Pedro A. Willging and Scott D. Johnson, “Factors That Influence Students’ Decision to Drop Out of Online Courses,” Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 13, no. 3 (October 2009): 115–27, https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ862360.
26Andrew P. Kelly, Jessica S. Howell and Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj, Matching Students to Opportunity: Expanding College Choice, Access, and Quality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2016).
27“Background Facts on Contingent Faculty,” American Association of University Professors, n.d., https://www.aaup.org/issues/contingency/background-facts.
28Michael Hergert, “Student Perceptions of the Value of Internships in Business Education,” American Journal of Business Education 2, no. 8 (November 2009): 9-13, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1052655.pdf. “Employers Prefer Candidates with Work Experience,” National Association of Colleges and Employers, April 5, 2017, http://www.naceweb.org/talent-acquisition/candidate-selection/employers-prefer-candidates-with-work-experience/.
29“Better Information for Better College Choice & Institutional Performance,” U.S. Department of Education, January 2017, https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/assets/BetterInformationForBetterCollegeChoiceAndInstitutionalPerformance.pdf.
30Shapiro et al., “Completing College: A National View of Student Attainment Rates—Fall 2009 Cohort.”
31Schleifer and Silliman, “What’s the Payoff?”