Research

Adults Considering a Return to College Are Leery of Cost and Online Ed

A new survey reported that while most adults see the value in higher education to prepare them for career advancement — especially those who have some level of college experience — concerns about incurring student debt and college affordability are the major barriers they face in returning to school. Sixty percent of all respondents said they've considered returning to school to earn a degree or certificate; 72 percent of those who have already attended some college said the same.

The survey, conducted in November by a market research firm for Champlain College Online, queried 1,004 U.S. adults between the ages of 23 and 55 from around the country about how they valued higher education, what would motivate them to return to school or prevent them from doing so, and what they thought about online learning. They were evenly split by gender and by geographic region. None had completed a bachelor's degree, but all had either finished high school or earned a GED (35 percent), attended some college (42 percent) or achieved an associate degree (23 percent). Champlain is a private nonprofit institution in Vermont with both on-campus and online programs.

The top barriers to pursuing higher education, according to the survey results, were financial. Three-quarters of respondents said they didn't want to be "burdened with student debt." Seven in 10 said they couldn't afford college. A solid third said they couldn't afford to return to school because they were supporting their children's education.

Increasing earning potential was the top reason people gave for wanting to return to college, specified by 73 percent of respondents. Also motivating: wanting to feel "better about myself for having completed a degree," cited by 59 percent; and wanting to be an inspiration to family members, picked by 54 percent.

In the area of learning modes, this group of adults wasn't convinced of the effectiveness of online learning. "On nearly every measure," the report stated, "respondents judged face-to-face learning to be significantly better than online learning." When people were asked to compare the effectiveness of online learning to traditionally delivered courses, for example, the largest gaps surfaced for teaching excellence and academic support.

"While a number of institutions have made huge strides in these areas, and offer an educational experience that is on a par with, if not superior to, the offerings of comparable campus-based institutions, students are either not convinced of this, or are simply not aware of online higher education's measures of quality," the report asserted. "This indicates that online higher education leaders have quite a bit of work to do when it comes to educating potential students about the value and quality of online learning."

"Champlain College Online's survey reveals that many adults would go back to school with the hope that higher education will unlock greater opportunities and gratifying careers for them, but barriers range from self-doubt to financial and physical realities," said Laurie Quinn, provost and senior vice president for academics at the college, in a prepared statement. "More awareness and action can close this gap, so adults have access to the quality, affordable education they deserve."

The survey report, "Adult Viewpoints 2017: Online Learning & the Back-to-school Decision," is available with registration on the Champlain College Online website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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