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

May 31, 2018

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. 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. 

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. This research is a follow-up to Public Agenda’s 2013 survey of adult prospective students.

Main findings include:

  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.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  7. Most adult prospective students think colleges and faculty can help inform their decisions about schools.
  8. Adult prospective students believe that business, community organizations and government can work together alongside colleges to help students succeed.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  7. Most adult prospective students think colleges and faculty can help inform their decisions about schools.
  8. Adult prospective students believe that business, community organizations and government can work together alongside colleges to help students succeed.

In order to increase the number of people with postsecondary credentials and ensure that the United States remains internationally competitive, it is necessary to allocate more energy and resources to ensuring that adult students complete their degrees or certificates. Based on our findings, this report concludes with implications and recommendations for helping more adult prospective students attain postsecondary success.

  1. Broaden the conversation about college costs to include not only tuition, but housing, transportation and food. Emergency financial aid, transportation stipends and food assistance can all be scaled up to alleviate some of the most pressing affordability burdens of attending college, helping more students complete their degrees.  
  2. Help adult prospective students gain a more realistic understanding of how to pay for college, and provide comprehensive counseling on loans and the financial aid process. Since most adult prospective students are worried about taking on debt, it is understandable that more say they will rely on grants and scholarships than on loans. Relevant, easily accessible financial aid counseling should be available when choosing a college, during enrollment and even after college completion.
  3. Provide guidance about when to transfer, and help adults understand potential challenges. Adult prospective students need to be engaged on when and how to transfer to maximize their likelihood of graduating and minimize their costs and time spent in school. They need to understand that some schools have higher transfer rates than others—before they start investing time and money in an institution.
  4. Create structures to help undecided adult prospective students pick a program of study prior to enrollment or soon thereafter. Enrolling undeclared means students may use up valuable time and money deciding on a field of study. Approaches such as intensive advising or guided pathway programs can help students narrow down their options so that they enter a program of study earlier and start earning credits toward their major. These approaches may be especially helpful for low-income students, who are even more likely to enter college unsure of what to study.
  5. Provide additional support for adult prospective students to stay on track and ensure they graduate. Consider ways different departments such as academic affairs and career services can work together and provide easily accessible and relevant tutoring or other services that can address students’ academic needs.
  6. Colleges and universities should prioritize faculty. Most adult prospective students say that when choosing a school, it is absolutely essential that instructors care about students and know how to teach., it is essential for colleges and universities to attract and retain high-quality faculty and give them the time they need to connect with adult prospective students and serve as advisers.
  7. Find innovative ways to provide workplace-relevant instruction in classrooms. Many adult prospective students are planning to pursue a degree or certificate to broaden their career options, and most think it is absolutely essential to gain skills that are relevant to the workplace. Colleges and faculty need to find other ways to integrate workplace-relevant skills and foster experiential learning into their curricula and instruction.
  8. The metrics that matter to experts—such as graduation rates—need to be made relevant to adult prospective students. Most adults do not think information such as graduation rates or the number of graduates who get a job in the field they studied is absolutely essential. While transparency is important for leaders and policymakers to hold institutions accountable, more needs to be done to help individual adult prospective students understand how those metrics matter to them.
  9. Ensure that colleges and universities are equipped to help adult prospective students make informed choices. Faculty, current students and staff should be provided with the time, training and information needed to enable them to engage adult prospective students and help them make informed choices. School websites should be easy to navigate, have information specific to adult learners and provide ways for adult prospective students to connect directly with faculty, students, alumni and advisers.
  10. Encourage businesses and community organizations to work together to support adult prospective students. Consider ways to create partnerships between businesses, community organizations and colleges themselves to create support systems for adult learners. Such support will help adult students gain workplace-relevant skills, transfer without encountering barriers and find support for critical needs such as food and transportation.

We sat down with some adult prospective students to find out what they had to say and to better understand their motivations, expectations, strategies and concerns as they considered their higher education options. See below for videos to hear what some adult prospective students had to say:

 

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.

Download the complete methodology, sample characteristics and the survey’s topline with full question wording: https://www.publicagenda.org/pages/a-major-step-what-adults-without-degrees-say-about-going-back-to-college-topline. For more information, email research@publicagenda.org.