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Research Report

How to compete in the degree completion market

As unemployment soars, many universities are looking to adult degree completion as a path to enrollment growth. But the vast majority of the 36 million U.S. college stop-outs will never return to complete a degree. And when they do return, most degree completion students choose 2-year or online universities for their fast and flexible options that help students balance college with work and family. To help guide enrollment strategy, EAB re-sized and segmented the adult degree completion market to understand student attendance patterns and degree choices, and the realities of competing in this challenging market.

We recently shared our findings with academic and business affairs leaders—view the takeaways from the Adult Degree Completion roundtable below and then take the next steps to determine the right strategy for your institution.

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Review the Key Takeaways

For stop-outs, higher ed exacerbates inequity

College dropouts are disproportionately students of color and from low-income backgrounds, impeding efforts for greater equity in educational attainment.
Black & Hispanic Students Far More Likely to Stop-Out
Percent of 2012 cohort not enrolled in higher ed and without a degree in 2018 by race/ethnicity
  • Asian: 16%
  • White: 23%
  • Hispanic: 33%
  • Black: 43%

The degree completer market is small


People age 25+ with some college, but no degree in 2013


Re-enrolled at some point between 2014 and 2018


Of those who re-enroll choose a 2-year college

2-year colleges are the competition

4-year colleges and universities compete more than they might think with 2-year colleges for degree completer enrollments.

Online programs are popular among degree completers

Degree completers are more likely to enroll in fully-online programs than their traditional undergraduate peers. They’re 14 times more likely than traditional undergrads to attend primarily online institutions, and eight times more likely to attend majority online institutions.

The fear of unemployement is a motivator

Most recession-era enrollment is driven by the “paranoid employed,” those afraid of future unemployment or limited advancement opportunities, rather than those who are currently unemployed.

A few giants dominate the market

A small number of online giants dominate the enrollment market for degree completers, offering scalable online programs at low tuition rates. Nearly 1 in 10 4-year undergraduates age 25 and older attend University of Phoenix, Southern New Hampshire University, or Western Governors University.

Design programs to unique audience needs

When creating new programs for adult students, higher ed leaders should be aware of the following key characteristics of adult degree completers.

Adult experiences and obligations

  • Years of work and life experience
  • Balancing school against family, work, etc.

Past college experience

  • Earned previous academic credit
  • Higher academic risk profile than general undergrad population

Financial limitations

  • Likely in debt from earlier enrollment
  • Potential for past financial obstacles like bursar holds

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