Adult Prospective Students Lacking the Information to Make Best College Choices

New report provides recommendations for leaders in higher education, government, philanthropy … and for prospective students


NEW YORK CITY – Adults who are deciding whether to return to college or to enroll for the first time have numerous sources of information and other support available to inform their decisions. But they’re not using those resources and may not even know about them, according to a new report from Public Agenda. Education leaders and policymakers must do a better job connecting students with informational resources and demonstrating their value, the research suggests.

These adults, who have often spent years in the workforce before returning for post-high school credentials, account for about a third of first-time college students in the United States, federal data show. But they may be making school or program-of-study selections while lacking information they don’t know is available, can’t find or don’t think is important. Without better knowledge about their future educations and schools, adult prospective students may not be selecting institutions or programs of study that best fits their academic, financial, professional and social needs.

According to the study, conducted with support from The Kresge Foundation, many prospective adult students seem to be unaware of or misinformed about key factors that could impact their success as they pursue associate or bachelor degrees or postsecondary certifications. Specifically:

  • Less than half (47 percent) of adult prospective students say knowing a college's graduation rate is essential to choosing a school. Many education experts argue an institution’s graduation rate is an important and accurate determinant of student success and the value of the education the student is paying for. This study finds that adult prospective students assume they will graduate, and few worry about dropping out.
  • Just 18 percent of adults surveyed have used an interactive website, like the White House Scorecard, to research schools. These sites, often vetted by education watchdogs, researchers and advocates, allow users to compare colleges and programs based on factors like cost, graduation and transfer rates, and the average time it takes students to graduate. Instead of these data-driven sources, most students are receiving information about colleges from family, friends or TV and billboard advertising.
  • Over half (55 percent) say "nothing comes to mind" when they hear the term "for-profit college" But when they learn about what differentiates for-profit from not-for-profit schools, particularly in the ways they are funded and governed, and some of their student outcomes, focus group participants became less trustful of for-profit institutions.
"Policymakers, private foundations and school leaders all spend a lot of money researching and publicizing data about college quality – they see it as critical information for consumers. Yet these efforts are falling short. The prospective students we talked to wonder how this information is relevant to them – they just didn't automatically care" said Carolin Hagelskamp, Public Agenda's director of research and lead author of the report. "Information alone is not going to be enough – it takes time and discussion for people to understand what data means to them and how it can help them make better decisions."

The report, titled “Is College Worth It for Me? How Adults Without Degrees Think about Going (Back) to School,” provides recommendations for leaders in higher education, government and philanthropy to help adult prospective students better understand their options and improve their chances of attaining a worthwhile postsecondary credential. The research consists of a survey and focus groups and was conducted with adults between the ages of 18 and 55 who do not have a college degree and who are considering enrolling within the next two years in a postsecondary program in order to attain a college credential. The report also includes an analysis of how older and younger adults differ in their concerns and priorities as they think about entering or reentering college.

What are they missing? Implications for Adult Prospective Students

Graduation rates and other metrics not seen as relevant

Many adult prospective students do not believe that metrics like the graduation rate of a school are essential in their decision making, even as experts and policymakers consider these data to be essential. In focus groups, participants assumed such metrics reflected more on students and less on the school. Because they did not consider themselves to be quitters they didn’t think information about a school’s dropout rate was particularly valuable for their college searches. In the survey, just 17 percent say dropping out of a program is something they worry about a lot.

Nearly three-quarters of adult prospective students (74 percent) say affordable tuition and fees are absolutely essential when choosing a school. Sixty-seven percent say taking on too much debt is something they worry about "some" (19 percent) or "a lot" (48 percent), with 24 percent already paying off student loans, either old loans of their own or their children's. Yet barely half (51 percent) believe that knowing the amount of debt a school's average student graduates with is essential before enrolling.

Seventy percent of prospective students say that gaining skills and knowledge that are directly relevant in the workforce is "absolutely essential" when choosing a school. Yet learning about the types of jobs that graduates from a particular school get is not a top priority – just 45 percent say it is absolutely essential to know this statistic--considered a key indicator of quality by many experts--before deciding which school to attend.

Little understanding of for-profits

For-profit colleges serve about 11 percent of the undergraduate population and dominate higher education advertising. Yet 55 percent of participants say "nothing comes to mind" when they hear the term "for-profit college" In focus groups, once participants came to understand the basic differences in the way for-profit and not-for-profit schools are financed and governed however, they found the information useful and grew more skeptical of for-profit colleges. (The for-profit sector has been scrutinized for aggressive recruitment practices, low graduation rates, high student loan default rates and not adequately preparing students for the labor market.) Of those participants who mentioned specific schools they were interested in, 22 percent named for-profit colleges.

Few students talk to counselors or use sites like White House College Scorecard

Many existing supports designed to help students make informed college choices are failing to reach these adults. Just 21 percent of adult prospective students surveyed had spoken to a college guidance counselor in the past year. Most learn about colleges from friends, family and colleagues (76 percent) or from advertising (64 percent).

In recent years, more and more websites have been developed to help students rank colleges according to personal preferences and make decisions about what to study and where to enroll. Yet only 18 percent of adult prospective students say they have used such an interactive website to research schools. In focus groups that accompanied the survey, few had even heard of such highly-touted sites as the White House College Scorecard, Campus Explorer or BigFuture. When they tested these websites out, however, they found them very useful.

What are they missing? Implications for Leaders in Higher Education, Government and Philanthropy

The report also includes a number of ways that leaders in higher education, government and philanthropy can help adult prospective students make wise decisions about higher education. Suggestions include:

Start by engaging adult prospective students on their greatest concerns and priorities. Whether online or in person, through support services or marketing, higher education institutions and other leaders need to provide information and advice that speak to the leading concerns of adult prospective students: job preparation, affordability, access to qualified and supportive teachers, and support to balance school, work and family.

Present school performance data in ways that are meaningful and engaging. Having the opportunity to discuss data and ask questions, and making the data relatable through testimonials and stories, can help prospective students better relate data about colleges to their own lives.

Comprehensive, web-based college search tools should appear early in web searches. Free, tailored websites like BigFuture, the White House College Scorecard and Campus Explorer don’t make it into the top ten during Google searches on keywords like "college" or "degree." Instead, for-profit colleges appear early and often. Mobile browser and app versions of these sites should also be developed.

Consider leveling the playing field for marketing to adult prospective students. To ensure access to information that will help prospective students understand the full range of higher education options, more marketing of unbiased information and better outreach by not-for-profit institutions might be necessary, or at least explored.

Create more opportunities for these individuals to meet and talk with advisers and experts. Adult prospective students surveyed especially wanted to meet with individuals who had their best interests at heart and are not pushing them to enroll in a specific school—online or in-person.

"Working moms, veterans, people who feel stuck in their current jobs, all sorts of American adults are thinking about going to college. Often, they see a degree or credential as their best shot at a spot in the middle class," said Will Friedman, president of Public Agenda. "Education leaders can – and should – do much more to help adults understand their options, so that their ability to succeed is not limited before they've even signed up for their first course."


More Information

Survey findings, charts and graphics are available at Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #WorthIt. This research report is part of a larger project surveying the attitudes of various student and employer groups toward issues in higher education, including online education, for-profit colleges and the needs of adult prospective students. To receive future findings related to this project, contact

About the Research

Data for this study were collected through a nationally representative survey of 803 adults (18 to 55 years old) without college degrees who are considering enrolling in a postsecondary program to earn a college credential (adult prospective students). These interviews were conducted via telephone, including cell phones, and online, in the spring of 2013. In addition, Public Agenda conducted a total of eight focus groups with adult prospective students for this research, including extended deliberative focus group discussions with follow-up interviews. For more about how this research was conducted, download the report's methodology.

About Public Agenda

Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate complex, divisive issues. Through nonpartisan research and engagement, it provides people with the insights and support they need to arrive at workable solutions on critical issues, regardless of their differences. Since 1975, Public Agenda has helped foster progress on higher education affordability, achievement gaps, community college completion, use of technology and innovation, and other higher education issues. Find Public Agenda online at, on Facebook at and on Twitter at @PublicAgenda.

About The Kresge Foundation

The Kresge Foundation is a $3 billion private, national foundation that works to expand opportunities in America’s cities. The foundation does this through grantmaking and investing in arts and culture, education, environment, health, human services, community development and our place-based efforts in Detroit. Fostering greater access to and success in postsecondary education for low-income, minority and first-generation college students is the focus of Kresge’s Education grantmaking. For more information, visit or follow @kresgedu.

New from Public Agenda


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