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New Report Highlights Motivations of Adults Thinking of Going to College and the Challenges They Face

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New Report Highlights Motivations of Adults Thinking of Going to College and the Challenges They Face

Findings from Public Agenda emphasize need for a variety of higher education resources and guidance for growing group of college students.

New York City – People with a college degree earn substantially more than those with only a high school diploma. But millions of American adults have no education beyond high school or started college but never completed their degree. A new report from Public Agenda offers insight into why some adults are considering going (back) to college and the challenges they think they’ll face once they enroll.

“A growing number of adults are enrolling in college, but their graduation rates still lag behind their younger peers”, said Will Friedman, President of Public Agenda. “Helping more adults attain a degree or certificate is crucial for their economic prospects and for our nation’s competitiveness. We are grateful to The Kresge Foundation for sponsoring this research that has the potential to help millions of American adults make more informed choices about college.”

Improving career prospects and gaining valuable workplace skills are among the main motivations for most adults looking to enroll in college in the next two years, according to findings from a nationally representative survey. But they worry about taking on debt and balancing school with their jobs and family responsibilities.

In this research of adults who are planning to enroll in college in the next two years, Public Agenda also found that:

  • Most adult prospective students plan to attend college in ways that can make completion more difficult, including transferring between institutions and attending school part-time. About a third will start college unsure of what they want to study, an increase since 2013.
  • Although most adult prospective students are confident they will choose the right school, many are overlooking important information that could inform their decision like colleges’ graduation rates and student debt burdens.
  • Only a third of adult prospective students worry about dropping out of their academic program.
  • Most adult prospective students believe that business, community organizations and government can work together alongside colleges to help students succeed.

“Higher education leaders, educators and policymakers need to understand the aspirations and concerns that adults have as they consider going back to college,” said Caroline Altman Smith, the deputy director of Kresge’s Education Program. “Especially given widespread enrollment declines, it’s more important than ever to understand the perspectives of adults who are considering enrolling in college so that higher education institutions and other stakeholders can provide opportunities for adult learners and the support they need to start and complete their degree or certificate.”

Findings are based on a nationally representative survey of 1,336 adults without college degrees who are considering enrolling in college in the next two years. The survey was conducted via phone, including cell phones, and online from August through November 2017. Public Agenda conducted focus groups with adult prospective students were conducted in New York, Florida and California.

For full findings from the report, A Major Step: What Adults Without Degrees Say About Going Back to College, please visit Public Agenda.

About Public Agenda

Public Agenda helps build a democracy that works for everyone. By elevating a diversity of voices, forging common ground and improving dialogue and collaboration among leaders and communities, Public Agenda fuels progress on critical issues, including education, health care and community engagement. Founded in 1975, Public Agenda is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in New York City. Find Public Agenda online at, on Facebook at and on Twitter at @PublicAgenda.

About the Kresge Foundation

The Kresge Foundation was founded in 1924 to promote human progress. Today, Kresge fulfills that mission by building and strengthening pathways to opportunity for low-income people in America’s cities, seeking to dismantle structural and systemic barriers to equality and justice. Using a full array of grant, loan, and other investment tools, Kresge invests more than $160 million annually to foster economic and social change. For more information visit

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