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.

Key Findings in Brief 

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