As leaders in higher education, government and philanthropy are pushing to increase the number of Americans with postsecondary credentials, our research demonstrates that much more can be done to help adult prospective students understand their options and figure out which kind of postsecondary education best fits their needs. Here, in brief, are ideas and considerations emerging from this research; some of them are broad, others are specific and even technical:
- Start by engaging adult prospective students on their greatest concerns and priorities. The considerations that these prospective students care about most are job preparation, affordability, access to qualified and supportive teachers and balancing school with work and family responsibilities. Education leaders should open any approach to engage or reach adult prospective students by providing information or advice about these top concerns.
- Present school performance data in ways that are meaningful and engaging to prospective students, and help them understand why the numbers can be useful to them. Many adults who are considering college do not immediately perceive graduation, dropout and loan default rates as useful to them. It takes time and discussion for prospective students to understand why data can help them make good decisions.
- Web-based college search tools that give students comprehensive information about schools should appear early in web searches—and should be accessible in mobile phone web browsers and apps. Free websites that offer prospective students tailored guidance in their college search and are designed to compare various school performance metrics hardly make it into the ten top Google searches on colleges, and they do not take into account that increasing numbers of adults access the Internet primarily on their phones.
- Help adult prospective students understand the differences between for-profit and not-for-profit schools. Most adults considering college are not aware of this distinction. But when they learn how different types of schools are funded and organized, and in particular that some schools are for-profit enterprises, the distinction matters to them.
- Consider trying to level the playing field for marketing to adult prospective students. To ensure Americans access information that will allow them to understand the full range of higher education options, more marketing of unbiased information and better outreach by not-for-profit institutions might be necessary. Are there smart ways for public schools to invest their limited budgets more effectively in marketing and advertisements?
- Create more opportunities for adult prospective students to meet and talk with advisers who do not have institutional agendas, in person or online. Many adult prospective students value the chance to learn from knowledgeable advisers and college experts, both in person or online. They especially want to meet with individuals who they feel have their best interests at heart and who are not pushing them to enroll in any particular school.
- Efforts to reach adults who are considering college must be tailored to different age groups, employment status and other demographic factors and life circumstances. Adult prospective students are not all the same. For example, we found older adult prospective students are less certain they will go back to school at all. They may benefit specifically from initiatives that are geared toward helping them become better informed about their options for a postsecondary education. Younger adults worry more about their ability to get through school and find a job afterward. They may need more help assessing their academic capabilities and identifying the most suitable types of support in order to succeed.