Prospective Adult Students Miss Key Data on College Options, Report Says

November 04, 2013

Most adults who are considering college—either completing a degree or starting one for the first time—aren't tapping into the wealth of information about costs, graduation rates, and job prospects, and as a result they aren't finding the right fit, according to a report released on Monday by Public Agenda, a nonprofit research group.

The report, "Is College Worth It for Me? How Adults Without Degrees Think About Going (Back) to School," says that most prospective adult students worry about the cost of college and how to balance studies with families and careers. They're looking for colleges with practical programs that will help them land jobs, as well as personalized support from caring faculty members and advisers.

The report, which was financially supported by the Kresge Foundation, was based on a survey this past spring of 803 adults, ages 18 to 55, who lack college degrees but expect to start earning a certificate or degree in the next two years. The group, which excludes students coming straight from high school, accounts for about a third of first-time college students in the United States, according to the report.

The survey found that adults ages 25 to 55 have more doubts about going to college and are less likely to have concrete plans. Those under 25 worry more about whether they can succeed at college and land a job afterward.

But students of all ages are surprisingly nonchalant about issues that should be keeping them awake at night, the report concludes.

Even though only about half of all undergraduates earn a certificate or degree within six years, only 47 percent of prospective adult students consider a college's graduation rate to be essential in choosing where to enroll, according to the report.

When confronted with those numbers in focus groups and conversations, survey participants said they weren't quitters. They tended to blame low completion rates on individuals, not colleges.

"These people who are thinking about going back are full of worries, but dropping out isn't one of them," Carolin Hagelskamp, Public Agenda's director of research and the report's lead author, said in an interview on Friday.

A Skewed Message?

Many of the would-be students are unaware of online tools that could help them make better decisions. Only 18 percent have used an interactive website like the White House's College Scorecard to compare colleges by cost, graduation rate, average time to degree, and other factors. Instead, they get most of their information from friends, relatives, and television and billboard advertisements.

They also tend to be unaware of the differences in college sectors, the report says.

When asked what they know about for-profit colleges, which enroll about one out of nine undergraduates, 55 percent of the respondents said "nothing comes to mind," the report says.

"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," it adds.

In describing for-profit colleges, "we had a script and tried to sound as neutral as possible," Ms. Hagelskamp said in the interview. But while mentioning the advantages such colleges offer, the report notes that the sector "has been scrutinized for aggressive recruitment practices, low graduation rates, high student-loan-default rates, and not adequately preparing students for the labor market."

That's enough to convince a spokesman for the association that represents for-profit colleges that the report's authors were giving prospective students a skewed message.

"Much like we have witnessed in the public-policy arena, if you put forth biased and one-sided information and accusations about institutions, you can negatively impact opinions," Noah A. Black of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities wrote in an email on Friday.

"The researchers could have shared with the focus groups," he wrote, "that our two-year institutions have significantly better graduation rates than our public peers and that they equip millions of students from diverse social and economic backgrounds with career-focused learning and job skills needed for a successful future."

Another representative of the for-profit sector, whom Public Agenda also allowed to review the report before its release, said the researchers had done a disservice to students "by lumping schools together by their tax status and creating an artificial distinction" between for-profit and not-for-profit schools.

"I don't think any student should make a decision based on the tax status of the institution," Mark Brenner, chief of staff at the Apollo Group, the parent company of the University of Phoenix, said in an interview on Friday.

The report suggests that policy makers and educators personalize information about adult students' options, make it more engaging and relevant to them, and create more opportunities for them to talk with unbiased advisers and experts.