Federal and state governments, as well as many private foundations, have made it a goal to significantly increase the percentage of Americans with a postsecondary credential. This means not only that more high school students are entering college right after graduation, but that adults who didn’t graduate from college earlier in life are increasingly returning to school or enrolling for the first time.

This research report examines the expectations, attitudes and needs of adults who are thinking about earning postsecondary credentials after having spent some or in most cases many years in the workforce. Public Agenda conducted this research with support from The Kresge Foundation. 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). 

Key findings include: 

  1. Adult prospective students are concerned about affordability and whether school can fit into their busy lives.  
  2. Adult prospective students’ top priorities include high-quality teachers, applicable skills, and affordable tuition.  
  3. Older and younger adult prospective students exhibit some different needs and concerns.  
  4. Most adults considering going to college expect to take remedial courses. 
  5. Most hope to take at least some classes online.  
  6. They learn about colleges from people they know, advertising and the websites of specific schools.  
  7. Many don’t think school performance metrics that experts place stock in—such as graduation rates and average student debt—are essential pieces of information to have before enrolling at a school.  
  8. Few adult prospective students distinguish between not-for-profit and for-profit colleges, but once they understand the distinction, they become more skeptical of for-profit schools.  
  9. Many believe that more opportunities to meet and talk with college experts and other adult students, in person or online, could help adults like them make better decisions.