Skip navigation
EAB Logo Navigate to the EAB Homepage Navigate to EAB home
Blog

Here’s why adult degree completers return to college—and why they don’t

July 9, 2020

As economies and institutions around the world reel from the impact of COVID-19, enrollment leaders have sought to identify pockets of students they can recruit to offset grim projections for first-time, full-time undergraduate enrollment. Some enrollment leaders have renewed their efforts to recruit adult degree completers—or individuals age 25 and older who have some college credit but do not have a bachelor’s degree.

While one colleague recently shared a story about a friend just a few credits shy of his bachelor’s degree who reenrolled after his former institution sent him just one marketing email, this is certainly not the norm. Adult degree completers are challenging to recruit due to a lack of test taker lists, the significant obstacles prospective completers can face in reenrollment, and their long (and often meandering) journey to enrollment.

Despite these challenges, degree completers are a highly motivated prospective student audience, eager to learn more from colleges and universities about going back to school. And while enrollment trends in the aftermath of COVID-19 remain to be seen, the nearly 33% increase in bachelor’s program enrollment among adults from before the Great Recession to the years following (i.e., 2007 to 2011) suggests degree completer enrollment may grow again the in the face of new economic uncertainty.

To learn more about this important but historically difficult-to-recruit group, we partnered with The Center for Generational Kinetics to interview and survey more than 1,000 prospective degree completers. Here’s what we learned about adult degree completers’ motivations, the obstacles they face in reenrollment, and their fears—and what they mean for your marketing and recruitment strategy.

EAB and The Center for Generational Kinetics (CGK) conducted video interviews with 30 US adults with some college credit who indicated they were open to continuing their post-secondary education at a four-year institution. To supplement and quantify the insights from these interviews, EAB and CGK then surveyed 1,010 US adults.

Adult degree completers are motivated by new and better opportunities

For most prospective degree completers we spoke with, stopping out was a sacrifice they made to make room for other priorities, such as work or family. And across the board, earning a bachelor’s degree would represent a significant personal and professional milestone—one made possible by changes in their circumstances or changes in themselves.

Forty-nine percent of survey respondents identify “create new and better opportunities for myself” as a top motivator for completing their degree. New and better opportunities range from higher pay and enhanced job prospects to more flexibility, free time, and simply, options. Earning a bachelor’s degree is also tied to a profound sense of personal and professional accomplishment, which many degree completers are eager to share with friends and family.

“The primary reason [I want to complete my degree] is to be an example to my kids…there’s nobody in my family who has completed school up to now. Why not me? Maybe I’ll be the first.”

– Survey respondent, Pennsylvania

Program cost and time commitment can be daunting

As part of our research, prospective degree completers were asked to submit video responses to a series of interview questions. When we received the video entries, we found respondents had spent an average of 20 more seconds talking about their fears and concerns than their motivations—a testament to the many obstacles degree completers face to reenrollment and the importance of proactively addressing these concerns in marketing.

47%

of respondents say “having enough time” is a top concern when they think about returning to school
of respondents say “having enough time” is a top concern when they think about returning to school

Above all, survey respondents identify being able to afford to complete their degree as the biggest concern they face in going back to school. More than half of respondents also say they are unsure how much completing their degree will cost. To ensure prospective degree completers have the information about cost they need to make an enrollment decision, include program cost information prominently on your website, such as in a program-specific FAQ page. And consider developing resources like a cost calculator to allow students to estimate total program cost easily.

Prospective degree completers must also consider how an academic program would fit into busy work and family schedules. Forty-seven percent of respondents say “having enough time” is a top concern when they think about returning to school. Clear estimates of weekly time commitment and information about credit transfer policies can help assuage student concerns about the time required to earn their degree.

“I work full-time. Many times, I work overtime. I’m married. I have a 13-year-old son. Many times, I have no time for myself. So how am I going to have time for school?”

– Survey respondent, New York

To help our Adult Learner Recruitment partners assess degree completers’ concerns, we’ve created and deployed micro-surveys that allow prospective students to identify their biggest concerns about returning to school. The insights gleaned from those micro-surveys can inform not only marketing messages but also the way your recruiters engage with and address prospective students’ concerns throughout the enrollment funnel.  

Fear of failure can derail students’ journey to reenrollment

In addition to concerns about cost and time commitment, prospective degree completers simply wonder: Can I do this? Survey respondents also wonder if they can keep up with the pace of coursework and if they will be treated differently (by peers or faculty) than first-time, full-time undergraduate students.

“Going into a classroom setting, I’m probably going to be the oldest person in the class, maybe even older than the teacher. Am I going to be treated differently?”

– Survey respondent, Texas

The institutions we work with have found success deploying copy, imagery, and calls to action that address these concerns proactively—and emphasize the guidance and support available throughout the admissions process and beyond. Video or written testimonials from current degree completers and alumni can also help mitigate prospective completers’ fears about their ability to succeed. Stories from students with similar personal and professional experiences will show prospective students they too can successfully complete their degree.

Next, view these related resources

Institutions have turned to adult learners to offset declines in traditional student populations. But recruiting adult learners presents a host of challenges absent in the traditional undergraduate market.

More Blogs

Blog

3 things you need to know about the shifting adult learner market

When it comes to enrolling the "responsible" generation in continuing education programs, learn three higher ed marketing truths…
Adult Education Blog
Blog

How Houston Baptist University tripled graduate student enrollment

Despite facing enrollment challenges ranging from incomplete applications to a hurricane, Houston Baptist University has significantly grown their…
Adult Education Blog
Blog

The campaign strategy that helped one graduate program see a 4.6x increase in applicants

Learn how direct mail can help your recruitment marketing messages stand out to college students, increase the effectiveness…
Adult Education Blog

You may have noticed EAB.com looks a little different. Explore what's new for partners.