Mixed signals from adults mulling a college degree

Adults without a degree who are thinking of going to college seem to understand the value of furthering their education as well as potential challenges along the way, according to a new report from Public Agenda. However, some do question whether it’s worth the investment.

Seventy-one percent of adults who are planning to pursue a degree or certificate do so to expand their career options, including 44 percent who are looking for a different job or career and 27 percent who want to get ahead in their current job or career, the report says. One-quarter say they want to do so to get a good education and learn about the world.

Survey participants indicate they see bachelor’s degrees as a better investment than an associate degree or certificate. Forty-seven percent of adult prospective students said an associate degree/certificate is a wise personal investment despite the cost because it is needed to get ahead in their careers. That compares to 57 percent who indicated the same for baccalaureates. One-third said an associate degree/certificate was a questionable investment for them because there was no guarantee it would result in a better job. Twenty-six percent of survey respondents indicated the same for a bachelor’s degree.

The report notes that some adults in focus groups expressed frustration that they had to get a degree or certificate in order to advance their careers.

“Some believed they already have the skills they need but they employers are just looking for a piece of paper,” the report says.

Not sure what to take

The report highlights areas that could trip new adult students. For example, almost one-third of adult prospective students said they will decide what to study once they are in school, according to the report, which adds that entering a program of study early correlates with successfully completing a degree or transferring. The report notes that guided pathways can provide these students with maps or structured plans of study.

“The growing share of adult prospective students who may be entering college unsure of what they want to study demonstrates the need for such programs, which can help students make sense of their options and get on a path to a major and to timely graduation,” it says.

Another challenge is with transfers. Many adult students don’t realize that the process to transfer from a two-year to a four-year institution — and figuring out which credits come along — is often burdensome and confusing, the study says.

They also seem to fail to recognize the value of earning an associate degree before transferring to a four-year institutions. Thirty percent of adult prospective students plan to transfer in a bachelor’s program after completing an associate degree. Yet 26 percent of adults considering a degree look only to complete some courses or receive a certificate prior to transferring into a baccalaureate program, the report says.

Disconnect on metrics

Most adult prospective students also don’t seem to think that it is essential to have information about higher education that experts prioritize, such as dropout rates. Only 28 percent indicated knowing a school’s dropout rate was essential.

And while 66 percent of survey participants said they would be much more interested in a school if it helped them find a job in the field of study, only half think it’s essential to know the number of graduates who get a job in the field they study.

Likewise, while 67 percent worry about taking on too much college-related debt, only half think it’s essential to know the amount of debt that students usually graduate with, and 41 percent feel the need to know the amount money graduates typically earn.

Also, while 56 percent of adult prospective students would like to transfer into a bachelor’s program after receiving some college credit, a certificate or associate degree, only 43 percent of those who indicate that they plan on transferring said it is essential to know that students from a particular school have successfully transferred.

“More needs to be done to help individual adult prospective students understand how these metrics matter to them,” the study says.

Findings are based on a national survey of 1,336 adults without college degrees who are considering enrolling in college in the next two years. The Kresge Foundation supported the study.

Source: Public Agenda, “A Major Step: What Adults Without Degrees Say About Going (Back) to College,” May 2018.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.
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