Key Findings

  1. Adult prospective students are concerned about affordability and whether school can fit into their busy lives. Adults who don’t have degrees and are considering enrolling in a postsecondary program are most concerned about taking on debt and about their ability to balance school with work and family obligations. Many also worry whether they will be able to keep up academically. But relatively few are anxious about dropping out or fitting in with other students.
  2. Adult prospective students’ top priorities include high-quality teachers, applicable skills, and affordable tuition. These prospective students’ main priorities are to gain knowledge and skills that will be directly relevant to the workplace and to do so at an affordable price and under the guidance of caring and qualified teachers. They are particularly attracted to schools that offer job placement, real-world experience and hands-on help with financial aid applications. 
  3. Older and younger adult prospective students exhibit some different needs and concerns. Older adults (25 and above) are more doubtful about the idea of going to school, and they are less likely to have concrete plans. At the same time, younger adults who are considering college (18 to 24 years of age) are more worried about their ability to succeed at college and land a job.
  4. Most adults considering going to college expect to take remedial courses. Many Americans in this group sense that they may not be well prepared for college work. Nearly 6 in 10 think it is likely that they will have to take a remedial class in college. 
  5. Most hope to take at least some classes online. Notwithstanding their desire for caring teachers and hands-on learning, most adult prospective students— especially older ones—want to take at least some classes online, with 1 in 4 looking to complete most or all of their degree online. But many suspect (and rightly so) that employers don’t value online education as highly as in-person instruction.
  6. They learn about colleges from people they know, advertising and the websites of specific schools. Few speak to college counselors or access online tools designed to compare schools. These adults’ most common sources of information on college are friends, family and colleagues, as well as TV commercials and billboard ads. Those further along in their college planning are also likely to access specific schools’ websites. Only a minority seek advice from college counselors. Even fewer use interactive websites designed to help students compare colleges and better understand their options—but those who have used these sites value them. 
  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. Despite being confident that they can find the advice and information they need to make good decisions, most prospective students lack what many experts and policymakers consider to be key pieces of information about colleges. Moreover, not even half feel it is essential to find out a school’s graduation rate before enrolling. Learning about the types of jobs graduates from a particular school typically get isn’t a top priority for many adults either. 
  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. More than half of adult prospective students do not recognize the term “for-profit college.” But when focus group participants learned more about what differentiates for-profit and not-for-profit schools—particularly in the way they are funded and governed—many became less trustful of for-profits. Some said this information would lead them to ask tougher questions about programs they were thinking of entering.
  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. What would help adult prospective students better navigate their college searches? Respondents were most enthusiastic about initiatives that would bring adult prospective students into direct contact with trusted college experts, through in-person workshops in the community and online forums. They were also attracted to the idea of comparing notes with their peers. And although few currently use websites designed to help students understand their options, many imagined such sites could help prospective students like them a great deal.