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For adult students, confidence should be a good thing, but is it limiting their chances at success?

by Allison Rizzolo

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

For adults without a college degree, making the choice to go back to school can be intimidating. These adults have been out of practice as students for a year or often much longer. They need to believe that they will succeed in order to make it to the starting gate, never mind the finish line. Otherwise, they'd never go back. Ironically and unfortunately, this confidence can also prevent them from taking steps that could increase their chances for success.

We spent part of the last year speaking with many of these adult prospective students. None had degrees, though all were planning on taking the leap back to school within the next two years. In doing so, these adults face some grim statistics.

Just half of all undergraduate students earn a degree or certificate within 6 years. Among older students those who start college in their twenties or later the risk of dropping out is much higher. More than half (54 percent) of those students who start school at age 25 or older end up leaving within 6 years.

If adult students want to beat the odds, they need to start by choosing a school or program that's right for them. Most of the adults we spoke to were confident that they could do so:

  • 76 percent agreed that there is enough information "out there" for people to be able to choose the college and program that best fits their needs they just have to make the effort to find it.
  • 73 percent say they know someone who can give them good advice and guidance in choosing a program and college.
  • 67 percent say they know someone who can give them good advice on how to pay for college and manage their finances.

On the one hand, this confidence and optimism could be advantageous in their pursuit of higher education. On the other hand, it may hinder these prospective students from asking important questions and properly evaluating all of the information they need to make good decisions.

In fact, our results suggest that many of these students may be unaware of or misinformed about key issues that could impact their ability to succeed in college. For example, many of these adults see themselves as finishers, not quitters. Just 30 percent said they were worried about dropping out. As a woman in Los Angeles told us, "if I'm going to start something, I'm going to try to stick to it as much as I can and not go that way to drop out."

Perhaps for this reason, these adults don't see why a college's graduation or drop-out rate should factor into their decision making. Just 47 percent say they think knowing the graduation rate of a school is essential information for their college searches. Most higher education experts, on the other hand, say these metrics can accurately indicate a student's prospect for success.

As another example, 67 percent of these prospective students told us they worry about taking on too much debt when they return to school. However, barely half (51 percent) think it's important to know the average debt a typical student at a particular school graduates with. And just 30 percent have spoken to a financial aid adviser during their college search.

What's more, while it's true that, as these adults sensed, there are numerous sources of information and other support "out there," few adult prospective students seem to be accessing these resources. For example, just 18 percent have used resources like comprehensive websites that compare schools during their college search. Just 21 percent have spoken to a college counselor in the past year.

Going back to school is tough, and we applaud the adults we spoke to for making the choice to do so. They need to retain their confidence to have the best shot at making it through. At the same time, they will be much more likely to complete their degree if they select a school that meets their needs socially, academically and financially.

There are steps that leaders in higher education, policy and philanthropy can take to empower these adults and help validate their confidence. Our report includes a number of recommendations to help leaders better reach these adults hoping to go back to school. Check them out here. Do you have other ideas? Share them with us on Twitter, using hashtag #WorthIt.



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