Published on 2015/04/28
Non-traditional students are particularly price sensitive, and institutions that design programs for this group need to ensure the costs are sensible for this population.

Adult learners manage busy schedules, have endured more than one economic downturn, and are financially conscientious.  When busy adults pursue an education, they are seeking career advancement and economic freedom, not insurmountable debt.

Colleges and universities can respond to price-sensitive adult applicants by understanding the realities they face, and employing strategies that promote retention, allowing them to charge affordable rates.

Reality Check: The Real Value of a Degree

When adults consider going to school they weigh several personal factors including cost of living, stability and debt.  Schools can set competitive tuition rates by considering the realities of their future graduates.

Cost of Living:

  • The national average home loan is $222,261 with an average monthly payment of $1,061.[1]
  • The average rent for three-bedroom apartment ranges from $1,800 to $2,500 a month.[2]
  • In 2014, the most popular automobiles were the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord, costing the average American $22,000-$28,000.

Employment and Income Stability

Earnings and unemployment rates are correlated with educational attainment.[3] Adults considering the future of their careers will choose to pursue a degree if they understand the 2013 data below.

  • The median salary for high school grads was just under $34K.  The unemployment rate was 7.5 percent.
  • The median income for adults with a bachelor’s degree was 40 percent higher than high school grads: $58K. Bachelor degree holders also maintained a 4 percent unemployment rate.
  • Master’s degree holders earned 17 percent more than their bachelor’s counterparts at nearly $70K.  These workers experienced a 3.4 percent unemployment rate.
  • For those who earned a doctorate, the median income was $84K.
  • Finally, earning over 33 percent more than bachelor’s holders, those who held professional degrees (leading to professional licensure/certification) earned an annual salary of nearly $90K.  The unemployment rate was just 2.3 percent.

Student Loan Debt

The average American family holds over $15,000 in credit card debt.  This is dwarfed by the average college loan debt which is nearly $30K per person.[4, 5] However, most grads with student loans exceed the perceived “tipping point” or student-loan comfort level.

  • In 2012, 71 percent of college graduates held student loan debt.[6]
  • On the up side, college grads who spend 4-5 years out of the workforce to earn a college degree, and who borrow the average amount in tuition, will break even between age 32 and 37.[7] Therefore, less than ten years after high school, degree earners earn 40 percent more than their counterparts and make up for the labor force time lost while in school.
  • The “tipping point” for those with student loan debt is between $20K and $30K; at this point borrowers begin to second-guess the value of their educational debt.[8]
  • Only 12 to 13 percent of Boomers, Gen-Xers and older Millennials who incurred $20-30K in college debt believe the cost exceeded the value of their education.  However, 22 percent of younger Millennials believe that their educational debt, at the $20-30K level, exceeded the value.

Setting Affordable Tuition Rates

Consider the Data

More often than not, the first thing returning students ask when they contact a university about going back to school is: “how much will the program cost?”  Explaining the advantages of earning a degree, including the likelihood that grads will earn more and suffer less unemployment, will drive the point home for adults seeking career gains and future economic freedom. However, convincing mature adults that going to college and earning bachelor’s and graduate degrees is the easy part—overcoming their aversion to added debt is the challenge.

A minority of future adult learners prefer to attend high-cost private schools.  Most institutions must price their programs at rates that will appeal to millions of contemporary applicants.

Based on the data, we know mid-career adults will pay $25K for a car and up to $20K a year to keep a roof over their heads.  We also know that grads will earn a median annual salary between $58K and $90K based on the degree level earned.  Lastly, we know that if their anticipated college debt meets or exceed $20-$30K, they may not be convinced that the value outweighs the cost.

Schools need take into account these factors when they price degree programs, assuming most students will borrow to pay for most of the cost and will pay out-of-pocket for 10 to 20 percent of their tuition.  Under this scenario, an affordable program’s cost may be akin to the cost of a family car and will not exceed the student loan debt “tipping point” or comfort zone for today’s consumers of higher education.

Make Lower Tuition Rates Work for Your Institution

Oftentimes universities are not sure they can afford set these more affordable rates of tuition.  We can be confident in setting more affordable tuition rates when we:

  1. Keep program costs down
  2. Attract a broad and diverse student body
  3. Maintain high retention rates

Busy adult learners typically do not need services like health and recreation centers.  Eliminating costs like these from the fees will allow schools to offer lower tuition rates.

Offering programs that are accessible to people who cannot travel to a campus, or who maintain demanding work schedules, will significantly increase the applicant pool over a long period of time.  Online programs, creative hybrid schedules, and residential scheduling tactics that allow for convenient schedules are among the most manageable for busy students.

Lastly, creating programs that are cohorted, structured for busy adults at an accelerated yet manageable pace, and that cater to learners with individualized student services will lead to higher than average retention rates.

At CSUN, our professional and graduate programs have utilized these features and enjoy an average retention rate of nearly 85 percent—even online.

Stay tuned to future installments of this series where we will explore these features that retain learners so your institution can set affordable tuition rates for busy adult students.

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[1] The National Association of Realtors, Data. Retrieved March 13, 2015 from

[2] Ibid

[3] The Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics. Retrieved March 10, 2015 from

[4] Eduventures, Wake up Call. Retrieved March 15, 2015 from

[5] U.S. News and World Report, Average Student Loan Debt Approaches $30,000. Retrieved March 11, 2015 from

[6] Institute of College Access and Success, Quick Facts About Student Debt. Retrieved on March 1, 2015 from

[7] CollegeBoard, Education Pays. Retrieved April 29, 2015 from

[8] Eduventures

This is the third installment of an ongoing series by Jennifer Kalfsbeek breaking down the top 10 features of programs designed for busy adult students. 

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