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What Never-Enrolled Adults Say Could Transform Their Intentions Into Actions

Short term training and accelerated learning are all the rage currently, but education has never fit a mould. Flexibility is key to retaining student attention, especially when it comes to timing
Short term training and accelerated learning are all the rage currently, but education has never fit a mould. Flexibility is key to retaining student attention, especially when it comes to timing

Throughout my time at CAEL, I have worked with postsecondary educators grappling with the same fundamental question.

“How do we grow adult learner enrollment?”

Faculty and staff often say they wish for some way to receive feedback from those who ultimately chose not to enroll.

In December of last year, CAEL and our research partners completed a study that uncovered reasons why adults who, during the last three years, considered enrolling in postsecondary education but ultimately changed their minds. Through interviews and a national survey of 2,013 adults representing all 50 states, we uncovered some critical insights.


It may be no surprise that the top concern among these prospective adult learners is the cost of a program, both overall and term-by-term. When investigating a specific program, 85% of adults cited affordability as the most important attribute regarding their choice of whether to apply. Even when considering the general prospect of pursuing a postsecondary education absent a particular program, 82% of our surveyed adults still reported that the cost of applying was the most important. Of all information on a program for which they searched, 71% sought the price of the program. They also reported that this information was the most difficult to find.

Ultimately, money was a key driver for adults’ decision to not enroll in a specific program, whether they applied or not. Among those who did not enroll, but did apply, there were a variety of factors. The most common, 33%, felt there was not enough financial aid, and an additional 23% said their program was too expensive. Half of those who chose not to apply further reported they could not afford the price of the program, and 29% said the application was too expensive.

Additionally, 72% of survey respondents reported they were interested in pursuing a two-year degree, this signals that affordability is a consideration—and barrier—for prospective students at all levels of postsecondary education. Institutions with social mobility at the heart of their mission should pay careful attention to this barrier. With many career opportunities locked behind degree requirements, the mere cost of making it to day one of the first semester could be prohibitive.

Marketing Programs That Meet Adult Learners’ Goals

Survey respondents also listed their primary motivators for considering enrollment, with 43% saying they wanted a better job and 27% saying they wanted to earn more money. With this in mind, institutions should ensure that promotional materials signal career and economic opportunity.

You may be wondering, “But which programs should I focus on first?” Prospective adult learners wonder the same. Prior to beginning their research on a prospective program, only 24% of respondents indicated that they knew which program they wanted to pursue. Meanwhile, the majority—57%—have a general idea which field they would like to study, but not which degree or certificate is appropriate for them.

When framing programs for prospective adult learners, you can flip the approach. Some key questions your promotional materials should answer include:

  • What occupation is the prospective learner interested in?
  • More broadly, what industry and what type of work is the adult learner seeking?
  • What programs lead to those careers? What is the cost and the expected return on investment?
  • How long does it take to complete the program on a full-time and part-time basis?
  • Are there opportunities for the student to earn credit for prior learning?

Flexibility Is Key

In today’s environment, short-term training and accelerated learning are the hot topics. However, education is not one-size-fits-all. About 21% of our surveyed students reported that they chose not to enroll because they did not have enough time to participate in the program. We have to be mindful of adult learners’ complex schedules and adapt to meet them where they are.

Providing more flexibility could help address prospective learners’ concerns about fitting education into their lives. About 62% of respondents reported they would be more likely to enroll if they could complete their desired program online. Interestingly, while 45% of respondents indicated that a shorter amount of time to complete their program would make them more likely to enroll, exactly half reported that they would prefer a part-time schedule. An accelerated approach could work for both if, for example, you are able to schedule courses with a consistent, but quick, rotation. Reframing courses into half-terms—something you likely already do for the summer sessions—could allow these learners to take one course each half-term.

Looking Ahead

Adult learners are not a monolith. Many of our adult learners are also the first in their families to attend college. When promoting programs to prospective adult learners, it is important to make the application process easy. After all, in an age when we are vying for enrollment, we are not in the business of turning prospective students away.

These structural barriers can be addressed through careful attention to the process which prospective adult learners must navigate to enroll. However, you may be glad to hear that 75% of survey respondents are open to considering enrolling in the future.

Representing 73% of survey respondents, these adults would be most likely to enroll if the out-of-pocket cost for postsecondary education were lower. Eliminating financial aid-ineligible enrollment and acceptance fees could go a long way to addressing this barrier. Providing transparent information about cost and available financial aid can do much to make enrollment possible for these prospective students. Further, providing local, program-contextualized labor market information can help clarify the return on investment. Finally, adult learners appreciate scholarships, no matter how small. If you have scholarships for which adult learners may be eligible, you should promote those upfront, perhaps through your website’s landing page.

Among those who were accepted to a postsecondary institution but ultimately did not enroll in their first term, about 68% would consider enrolling if the requirements for completing a degree or certificate were clearer. Addressing this barrier requires looking beyond guided pathways and to the root cause: confidence in making it across the finish line. With 84% of these adults being more likely to enroll if they were more confident that they could complete their program of study, we have to work to build a sense of agency into those early contacts with prospective and newly admitted adult learners. Building stackability into part-time, flexible programs is a great start. By providing multiple finish lines, we can guide adults to many successes at their own pace.

Finally, to build enrollment, these prospective students need to see themselves as the faces for success. About 87% of them go online to learn about programs. It may come as a surprise that 43% of these survey participants read online reviews about the institutions they considered. While promoting adult learner success stories on your institution’s website will go a long way to engage this population, you should also encourage your graduates and current adult learners to spread the word online. After your website, the surveyed adults reported that online reviews were the most non-advertising resource in order to identify programs deserving of further research. Person-to-person resources were critical factors for several students as well, with 57% of survey participants citing recommendations from family or friends, and 54% saying school or program officials.

Funding for CAEL’s study on never-enrolled adults was provided through a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation and a matching grant from Strada Education Network. CAEL is grateful for their support of our efforts to ensure that every adult can navigate lifelong learning and career pathways that sustain equitable economic mobility and community prosperity.

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