Public Agenda, in tandem with The Kresge Foundation, conducted a national survey of 1,336 adults who are considering enrolling in a college in the next two years. They found that while adults generally believe a college degree leads to better career opportunities, many still wonder if college is worth the investment.
In fact, a separate survey by Champlain College found that, of U.S. adults age 23 to 55 without a bachelor’s degree, 60% have considered going back to school, but 75% worry about student debt.
Still, a majority of respondents in the Public Agenda/Kresge survey expressed an interest in earning a degree to expand their career options. Slightly more adults said a bachelor’s degree is a good investment (57%) than an associate degree or certificate (47%), and a third speculated that an associate degree or certificate wouldn’t guarantee them a better job.
Many adults also indicated that they planned to transfer from a two-year college to a four-year college. The Public Agenda/Kresge report suggests that these adults overlook the value of earning a certificate or associate degree before transferring into a baccalaureate program, with only 26% of adults planning to complete course credits or a certificate and only 30% planning to complete an associate degree prior to earning a bachelor’s degree.
And the majority of respondents seemed to underestimate how complicated the transfer process could be, according to the researchers. Less than half of respondents who planned to transfer suggested that they would want to know whether previous students had successfully transferred to or from an institution.
Despite demonstrating an interest in expanding their career opportunities, a third of adults surveyed indicated that they would decide what to study once they were enrolled in college. And many respondents weren’t concerned with learning the number of graduates who found a job in their chosen field or how much grads typically earn.
“More needs to be done to help individual adult prospective students understand how these metrics matter to them,” the report argues.
Champlain is one of many colleges working to provide transparency for and ease the path for adult students. To help adult students get the most of their degree, Laurie Quinn, Champlain’s provost and senior vice president for academics, notes that it’s important to understand what this growing demographic wants out of college.
1: To change careers. Many adults pursue a new career later in life. Some want to try a career in a new field, while others are forced to try something new after their jobs were automated or outsourced. Still others enter retirement only to find they still want to work.
2: To stay competitive. To keep up with technological advances, many experienced workers are looking for a way to update their skills.
3: To keep learning. Some adults return to school simply to tackle new challenges. The New York Times reported in 2016 that some lifelong learning programs have waitlists hundreds of names long.
4: To meet a lifelong goal. Many adult learners return to school to complete a degree after competing priorities—like family or military service—put their education plans on hold. Some degree completers simply want the sense of personal fulfillment, and others hope to inspire their children or grandchildren.