Adult Interest in College Is High — But So Are Barriers

A new study shows that most American adults recognize the value of a postsecondary credential for career and financial success. At the same time, employers need trained and skilled workers — particularly in Michigan, where our credential attainment ranks 37th nationally and last in the Midwest.

Fortunately, we have an opportunity to serve both interests, by harnessing the growing enthusiasm for postsecondary degrees and opening the doors of opportunity for Michigan families and employers alike. But to do so, we must provide more attention to the needs of adult learners. It is more important than ever for colleges and universities across Michigan to adapt their practices to better serve this important population.

The urgency of this opportunity was evidenced in a recently released State of Higher Education 2024 Report by the Lumina Foundation and Gallup, which found 94% of adults surveyed say at least one form of postsecondary credential is very valuable. Meanwhile, the percentage of adults not enrolled in a postsecondary program who are considering enrolling has increased from 44% in 2021 to 59% in 2024. The authors noted this was the highest level they have recorded since the survey began.

But enthusiasm goes only so far: More than a third of currently enrolled students surveyed said they considered quitting within the past six months. While cost and a lack of financial aid were most cited as barriers to enrollment, the barriers to completion are more complex. Among those who considered dropping out, 64% cited emotional stress or mental health concerns.

Dismantling barriers

The Gallup and Lumina report confirms findings at The Michigan Center for Adult College Success, where we are working with institutions across the state to develop innovative support systems.

This begins with the recognition that adult learners have more complicated lives than their “traditional” peers, recent high school graduates. It’s also important to understand what motivates adult learners. Gallup and Lumina found that, for adults who have stopped out or never enrolled, the three top issues that would influence their desire to enroll are:

1. Opportunities for good paying jobs in chosen field of study

Colleges and universities, nonprofit organizations, and others can help address the first issue by demonstrating clear pathways for an adult to obtain a postsecondary education that leads to a good paying job.

2. Cost of college

Michigan has made great strides toward making college affordable in recent years. We are fortunate to have the Michigan Reconnect program to help offset the cost of a postsecondary credential for adult learners. Unfortunately, not enough Michiganders are taking advantage of this program.

Michigan has 2.5 million adults without a postsecondary credential, but only 50,222 adults have used Reconnect to enroll in a postsecondary education since the program’s inception through 2023, according to a recent Michigan Auditor General Report. This represents 2% of the potential eligible adults. Increasing awareness and access to the program will be critical to help adults feel more confident about their ability to afford seeking a postsecondary education.

3. Having control over the days and times of needed classes

This is a significant issue for adult learners. The traditional college course schedule creates numerous barriers for adults who are working, have family obligations, and the many other demands that adults face. Colleges and universities need to adapt by looking at creative scheduling options that provide access to the courses when adults can fit an education into their already busy lives. Some of the promising practices include utilization of 7- or 8-week courses, course offerings outside the typical workday hours, online and asynchronous courses, among others.

The Gallup and Lumina Foundation report also notes that the cost of the program, work conflicts, and emotional stress as the top three reasons why adult are not enrolled in a postsecondary institution.

Improving across Michigan

The Gallup and Lumina findings provide a counterpoint to the debate in recent years over the value of a postsecondary education. Despite the detractors, the simple truth is a postsecondary education is the best path to prosperity. We documented this fact in our Adult Postsecondary Education in Michigan & Beyond report, noting that an individual with a bachelor’s degree will make $1.2 million more over their lifetime than someone with only a high school diploma.

That is why The Michigan Center for Adult College Success was created by the state of Michigan: to meet the statewide need for a skilled workforce and increase the number of adults obtaining postsecondary credentials. These credentials open the door to good-paying jobs, allowing more Michiganders to build better lives for themselves and their families.

As an initiative of TalentFirst, The Center shares insights on how to implement the best practices that meet the needs of adults at postsecondary institutions. This includes:

The Center is committed to assisting Michigan’s colleges and universities explore how they can best serve adult learners. We are currently working with over a dozen institutions across Michigan on how they can change their systems to better serve adult learners.

If your institution is interested in partnering with us to better serve adult learners, reach out to us at TheCenter@talentfirst.net. Or stop in at one of our virtual office hours — registration links are available in the Application Assistance section of our Innovation Investment Awards page.

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