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Adults Returning to College Statistics

Statistics of Adults Returning to College: Insights on Degree Completion and Career Advancement

In the dynamic landscape of 2023, a notable trend emerges—a growing number of adults are returning to college to further their education and career prospects.

The increase in university applications further emphasizes this resurgence of adult learners, marking a recovery from the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

That being said, this survey findings will provide evidence on the subject of adults returning to pursue a college degree.

In this article, we will explore the latest data, trends, and insights regarding adults returning to college, underscoring the motivations, challenges, and impacts of this educational journey on their lives.

Therefore, let’s dive into the world of adults returning to college and uncover the statistics that support this transformative experience.

Key Takeways

  • Adult learner degree completion rates are high, with 68% of community college and 70% of online four-year students completing their programs.
  • Adult learners with previous college experience are more likely to return to school (24% vs. 9% with one term), and they are more likely to get their bachelor’s degrees.
  • Returning adults see a 22% increase in upward mobility and 140% higher salaries.

Statistics of Adults Returning to College

  • Enrollment Trends: A recent survey exploring educational choices revealed that 23% of adult participants (aged ≥18) are currently enrolled in some form of educational program.
  • Current Enrollment Statistics: Among those presently pursuing postsecondary education, nearly two-thirds (approximately 65%) are enrolled in conventional higher education programs. These encompass associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral programs.
  • Diverse Learning Routes: The remaining one-third of respondents have chosen non-conventional educational paths, which include continuing education programs, associate degrees, trade certification or license programs, or others.
  • Adult Learners Returning to College Completion Statistics: 68% of returning adult students who re-enrolled at community colleges between 2013 and 2018 completed a credential by 2021, whereas 70% of those who re-enrolled at primarily online four-year institutions completed a credential by 2021.

Statistics of Parents Returning to College

Let’s allay your fear of returning to college with the example of those who finished their graduation successfully using a survey of 2,000 parents.

  • Returning for New Dreams: Overall, 44% of parents plan to return to college to pursue new interests and dreams. This decision was partly influenced by the realization that life is too short to delay dreams (acknowledged by 62% of the respondents), particularly considering the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Seeking Fresh Perspectives: A total of 56% of these parents believe that additional education could provide a fresh perspective on life.
  • Confidence in Academic Performance: Approximately 80% of the respondents feel they would perform better academically now compared to their previous college experiences.
  • Delayed by Financial Priorities and Family: The top reasons for delaying their educational aspirations include financial priorities (49%) and starting a family (40%). Only 30% have already obtained a degree related to their dream job, while 11% did not complete the pursuit of their dream career.
  • Balancing Family and Education: Three out of four parents expressed concern about finding a balance between family life and continuing their education.While many expressed a desire to attend or return to college to complete their degree program, only 60% worry about the impact on family time.
  • Preference for Online and Hybrid Programs: To achieve a balance, parents prefer online programs (47%) or hybrid—combining online and in-person classes (30%).
  • Importance of Professional Guidance: Parents (65%) expressed a greater willingness to return to college if they had expert support to their adult learning.
  • Rediscovering Passions: Fifty percent of the parents rekindled previous interests in non-educational activities, including child-related employment, culinary arts, interior design, or bar ownership and operation.
  • Varied Aspirations: Some parents express the desire to complete a major they had to interrupt in the past when they stepped away from college to raise their children, whereas others are motivated by the goal of advancing in their current careers. Additionally, there are those who aim to set an example for their children, emphasizing the importance of education by pursuing it themselves.

Six Driving Forces Behind the Return to College

The obvious question to ask to start is, why are the adults returning to college? Here are six reasons:

1. Desire for Self-Improvement

A nationwide survey conducted by Full Circle Research and Champlain College Online highlights the desire among adults without a bachelor’s degree to return to higher education, with 60% seriously considering this educational journey.

This reflects a pervasive yearning for self-improvement and knowledge pursuit that transcends age barriers.

2. Multifaceted Motivation

The motivation for returning to college is multifaceted, encompassing personal growth pursuits, career advancement, and the adaptability required in today’s dynamic work environment.

College education has been demonstrated to be a reliable pathway to individual fulfillment and still remains a strategic choice to navigate the challenging job market.

3. Value of a Bachelor’s Degree

According to Back2College data analysis, adults are increasingly recognizing the importance of a college degree in today’s competitive job market, where advanced skills and qualifications are often prerequisites for career progression. The data indicate:

Significant Increase in Annual Income

According to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics, adult learners who return to higher education experience a substantial increase in their annual income. On average, they earn $7,500 more per year compared to before they returned to college.

In addition, employers are increasingly recognizing the value of adult learners, with 75% of hiring managers reporting a willingness to hire over-45s with relevant training or educational credentials compared to those with only work experience.

Enhanced Career Progression

The decision to return to education as an adult contributes to career progression. These individuals are 22% more likely to achieve upward mobility—the ability to improve one’s socioeconomic status, as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Higher Annual Salary Compared to Peers

Adult learners have a significantly higher annual salary than their counterparts who did not pursue further education. This could be as high as 140%, according to a report by the College Board.

4. Shift in Career Trajectory

Beyond personal growth and career advancement, a new CivicScience survey revealed that 11% of U.S. adults are contemplating a return to school to pursue a new career path, with 8% already making this transition.

These findings underscore a commitment to professional growth and adaptability in the ever-evolving workforce.

5. Unemployed Adults Turn to Education to Reignite Careers

Survey data reveals distinct patterns among different segments of the population.

Unemployed adults who have lost their jobs or face difficulties in securing employment are the most likely to consider returning to school to transform their career paths.

This exemplifies their resilience and determination to use education to improve their employability and reignite their professional careers.

6. Remote Workers’ Forward-Thinking Approach

Adults working remotely demonstrate an inclination to proactively engage in programs with the goal of switching careers.

These individuals, while currently employed, recognize the evolving nature of their jobs in the post-pandemic era and the need for new skills and qualifications.

Going back to college after a lengthy absence indicates their proactive approach to remaining relevant in the ever-progressing competitive job market.

The 2024 Landscape of College Education

After we’ve explored the current enrollment trends among adults who are returning to school, let’s now look into the broader landscape of college education in 2024.

Traditional College Education Persists

In 2024, traditional college education remains a popular choice among Americans, as evidenced by the rise in college applications following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Debate Over Value

The perceived value of a college education or associate degree continues to be a subject of debate. An even split of opinion exists among individuals aged 13 and older: 50% hold a  skeptical view that the expenses of a college education undermine its value, whereas others believe it’s a worthwhile investment.

A mere 29% consider a college degree as crucial for career success.

Rise of Trade and Vocational Schools

The findings from CivicScience in October 2021 revealed a growing preference for trade and vocational schools over traditional colleges; this perception is projected to persist through 2023.

Moreover, more than half of the population still views trade schools as attractive alternatives.

Divergence from Enrollment Trends

Notably, the preference for trade schools doesn’t fully align with current enrollment trends. Traditional college programs continue to dominate the educational landscape despite the growing appeal of trade schools.

This underscores the dynamic nature of educational choices in 2024.

The Role of Online Program

Building upon our discussion of the 2024 landscape of college education and the diverse educational choices being made, let’s now explore the role of online education and its relevance in this evolving context.

Growing Popularity of Online Courses and Degrees: Online education programs have become the preferred choice for numerous returning high school graduates. data analysis suggests that over 20% of adults aged 13 and older are at least somewhat interested in completing a full online program for their college credit.

Unemployed Adults Upskilling and Reskilling Online: Unemployed adults—those who have lost their jobs or are struggling to secure employment—are more likely to consider returning to school as a means of pivoting their careers.

Strong Interest in Career Changers: Online education becomes a lot more appealing to adults who are thinking about going back to school to change careers.

More than one-third of these individuals express a high degree of favorability toward full online programs, with an additional 38% expressing some degree of favorability.

Remote Workers’ Initiative

Notably, employed adults working remotely display the highest inclination to be currently enrolled in programs aimed at switching careers. This trend is indicative of the changing nature of work in the post-pandemic era.

Obstacles for Adults Returning to College

Despite the indisputable merits of returning to college, working adults encounter specific challenges when contemplating this choice.

The 2019 survey conducted by Champlain College Online indicates that approximately 75% of adults without a bachelor’s degree express concerns about the financial burden of education.

Furthermore, concerns regarding student loans are widespread due to the rising costs of tuition and the burden of debts. Full Circle Research also supports all of these factors.

These financial worries are normal and create serious hurdles for those considering a return to college.

Making Higher Education More Affordable for Adults

Now that we’ve addressed the concerns raised about the financial barriers and obstacles adults encounter when considering returning to college let’s explore potential solutions and support mechanisms to make higher education more accessible.

Favorable Interest Rates

Federal student loans come with comparatively low-interest rates, offering a better chance to pursue higher education.

Prospective students should thoroughly explore federal loan options to enhance the affordability of their educational journey.

Flexible Payment Options

Federal student loans provide a spectrum of adaptable payment plans, encompassing income-based alternatives and loan forgiveness programs tailored for specific sectors.

These choices can substantially reduce the financial burden associated with student loans.

Financial Aid

Adults contemplating a return to college should actively seek out grants and scholarships designed to alleviate educational costs.

Many of these financial aid are tailored to adult learners, and since they don’t necessitate repayment, they can render the pursuit of a degree financially attainable.

Overcoming Barriers and Achieving Success

In a report from 2019, the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center provided some insights.

It was observed that approximately one million Americans who had previously dropped out of college returned to school in the past five years and earned undergraduate degrees or certificates.

This suggests that many adults are contemplating a return to college and successfully becoming graduate students.

The NSC data also revealed the demographics of these “Some College, No Degree” (SCND) students. An average SCND student is 39 years old, with 51% of them being women.

This diverse group of learners left postsecondary institutions about a decade ago, with 53% dropping out before completing two years of study.

Overall, approximately 3.5 million potential completers are in this cohort, which underscores the untapped potential in the adult education landscape.

While the statistics reveal the challenges and motivations of adults returning to college, they also highlight success stories.

A new report from 2018 by the NSC Research Center indicates that despite personal obstacles and financial hurdles, more than half of the 3.8 million students who returned to college between 2013 and 2018 have either earned a degree or credential or are actively pursuing one.

This finding underlines the resilience and determination of adults who embark on this educational journey.

Final Thoughts on Adults Returning to College Statistics

It is evident from the above discussion and statistics that traditional education and colleges will be relevant for the foreseeable future. This provides further justification for the continued enrollment of adults in higher education institutions after a decade.

The need to develop their skills, change careers, or grow more in their current career—all of these are relevant as motivation for return.

Despite the financial burdens, traditional education in the college structure is still relevant in 2023.

Keeping abreast of the scholarship and funding opportunities can make the journey of returning adults much smoother.

Rebecca White
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