A research brief from Public Agenda by Rebecca Silliman and David Schleifer
Sponsored by The Kresge Foundation
May 2018

This research brief explores the perspectives of adults who are considering going (back) to college to get a degree or certificate. Important findings include the following:

Finding 1: Most adult prospective students say their primary motivation for pursuing a degree or certificate is to improve their career prospects. About half of them think pursuing a degree or certificate is a wise investment despite the cost, but the rest are not convinced.

Finding 2: Taking on debt and balancing their studies with work and family are adult prospective students’ top concerns about pursuing a degree. Relatively few worry about dropping out of their program.

Finding 3: Adult prospective students expect daily expenses to become more difficult to afford when they start college. Few expect to receive help paying for college from family, friends or employers.

Finding 4: Most adult prospective students plan to attend college in ways that can make completion more difficult, including transferring between institutions and going to school part-time. Moreover, about a third will start college unsure of what they want to study, an increase since 2013.

Finding 5: High-quality teachers, affordability and gaining workplace skills are adult prospective students’ top priorities when choosing a college. Most would be attracted to colleges that help students stay on track in their studies and find a job after graduation.

Finding 6: Although most adult prospective students are confident they will choose the right school, many are overlooking important information that experts think could help them do so.

Finding 7: Most adult prospective students think colleges and faculty can help inform their decisions about schools.

Finding 8: Adult prospective students believe that business, community organizations and government can work together alongside colleges to help students succeed.

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 and for individuals’ economic prospects as well. Although traditional-age students outnumber adult learners in college, the percent of adults enrolling in college continues to grow. Yet adult students have lower graduation rates than their younger peers. And, 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.

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. 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.

Findings and recommendations are based on survey data from a nationally representative sample of 1,328 adult prospective students that were collected via phone, including cell phones, and online interviews from August 17 through November 12, 2017. In addition, we conducted three focus groups with adult prospective students, 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.

For a full report on these findings, including sample characteristics, and a complete methodology and the survey’s topline with full question wording, please go to https://www.publicagenda.org/pages/a-major-step-what-adults-without-degrees-say-about-going-back-to-college-topline.


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