More than 70 Million Adults Want to Head Back to School

Degrees of Opportunity, a new national study of the attitudes of adult Americans toward continuing their education, indicates that more than half of American adults age 25 to 60 would like to pursue additional education—the equivalent of more than 70 million adult Americans. The study, sponsored by Capella University, also reveals the reasons millions of adult Americans are returning to school, as well as the barriers that are preventing others from pursuing their educational goals. The national survey was conducted by independent research firm TNS NFO, the world’s largest custom research group.

Even in a time of wide public concern about the rising costs of higher
education, the study found that American adults overwhelmingly believe that advanced learning is an investment that pays. Nine out of 10 (89%) said that the benefits of higher education are equal to or greater than the time, money, and energy invested.

“One of the big surprises was the mix of reasons why people thought it would be beneficial to get more education,” said Lyungai Mbilinyi, PhD, author of the study report. “We thought that the prospect of a higher income would come out on top, and although 71 percent did think additional education would help them earn more, several intangibles were rated even higher. Eighty-one percent associated higher education with a personal sense of accomplishment and 78 percent believed education would help them better develop their talents or pursue their interests.”

Despite the value adults placed on higher education, only a third of those who said they wanted more education said they were likely to pursue it. Time management was the greatest barrier—73 percent of those who wanted to pursue additional education rated this issue as a concern.

“The National Center for Education Statistics has found that online education is growing at a rate that is 10 times faster than that of traditional postsecondary options. With time management concerns at the top of many students’ minds, the flexibility of online environments is likely contributing to the increase in those enrollments,” said Dr. Mbilinyi.

Financial considerations were also an issue for many. Seventy percent of respondents said that it would be difficult to find the money to pay for school. “We also discovered that applying for financial aid is a big concern for adults wanting to return to school,” said Dr. Mbilinyi. “Our educational system does a good job of helping high school students find financial aid resources, but the path is not as obvious for adults, even though many of the same resources are available to them.”

Many systems are geared toward the ‘traditional’ student—18- to 22- year-olds attending undergraduate school full time and living on campus. But the reality is that 84 percent of higher education enrollments are non- traditional students, such as working adults and students enrolled in distance learning.

Despite barriers that have kept some adults from returning to school, more than half of those who did go back to school said they wish they’d done it sooner—and virtually no students said they wished they’d waited longer.

“We asked those who had pursued higher education to tell us what advice they’d give to someone who wanted to get more education, but hadn’t taken the leap,” said Dr. Mbilinyi. “Almost every respondent who offered advice said the equivalent of ‘Just do it!’ Despite the assortment of obstacles that many adults face when considering a return to school, the overwhelming majority believe the resulting benefits have made it worthwhile.”

About the survey
This study was conducted for Capella University by independent research
firm TNS NFO, the world’s largest custom research group, from a nationally representative sample of 1,129 U.S. adults age 25 to 60. The purpose of the survey was to gain a statistically sound understanding of the views of American adults on the value and feasibility of pursuing higher education as adults. The survey was conducted online from May 2 through May 15, 2006. Respondents included those with no college degree, as well as those with bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. Copies of the survey report are available at

Degrees of Opportunity Survey

Other key results

Most adults wish they’d gone back to school sooner.

—57% of those who have gone back to school say they wish they had done
it sooner.
—42% say the timing was about right.
—Less than 1% say they wish they’d waited longer.

U.S. adults place a high value on education.

—More than half of adults believe that their lives would be better if
they had more education.
—75% agree that the education they have received has made a positive
impact in their lives.
—Those with degrees are even more likely to agree – 89% of those with
bachelor’s degrees and 94% of those with post-graduate degrees.

Kids aren’t the only ones who get butterflies at back-to-school time.

Adults have a very mixed emotional response to the thought of going back to school:

—Tired (34%)
—Nervous (33%)
—Hopeful (28%)
—Worried (25%)
—Excited (22%)
—Confident (21%)

People with college degrees are more satisfied with their current lives

and more optimistic about their future.

—Those with college or post-graduate degrees are more likely than those
without degrees to say they are earning more, making greater
contributions to their companies, families and communities, and
finding more job satisfaction than they were five years ago.
—Those with degrees were also more likely to anticipate these same
improvements happening in lives over the next five years.

For adults, the obstacles to getting more education are different than

those typically associated with students attending college right after high


—Among adults who wanted more education, the top five
challenges/barriers to pursuing higher education related to time and
– Managing all of my other commitments and still finding time for
school (perceived as a barrier by 73% of respondents).
– Finding the money to pay for school (70%).
– Providing for myself/family while in school (62%).
– Making a commitment for the length of time it takes to complete a
degree (61%).
– Attending classes regularly (50%).

—Adults were less likely to be worried about their abilities to choose
the right school or program and do well in school—worries typically
associated with younger students:
– Finding a school or program that matches my needs and interests
(perceived as a barrier to pursuing additional education by 34%).
– Overcoming fear of taking a risk and maybe not succeeding (33%).
– Deciding what subject to study or degree to pursue (28%).
– Being able to learn the material and do well in class (25%).
– Having the encouragement and support of family (18%).

Family matters most when it comes to pursuing higher education – significantly more than a child’s teacher or school counselor, or an

adult’s boss. In childhood and youth:

– 70% of adults say their mother had a major influence.
– 61% say their father had a major influence.
– Teachers were the third most likely to have a major influence, but
to a much lesser degree; 32% say teachers were a major influence.
– Only 18% say school counselors were a major influence – about equal
to the influence of friends, siblings and grandparents.

In adulthood:
– 51% say their spouse or partner has the greatest influence.
– The second greatest influence is children; 9 percent say their
children have the single greatest influence on whether they go
back to school.
– Only 4% list their boss as having the greatest influence.

Expectations and encouragement are strongly tied to educational achievement.

—Those with college or post-graduate degrees are more than three times
as likely as those without degrees to say they received encouragement
at home and at school to continue their education after high school.
—Non-college graduates are more likely than those with a college or
post-graduate degree to have received the message that they weren’t
“college material.”

Most people believe certain groups are at an advantage or disadvantage in higher education.

—Generally, people thought Caucasians and males are at the greatest
advantage in getting a degree, while people 50 and older and those
born outside the U.S. are seen to be at the greatest disadvantage.
—Men were more likely than women to think women have an advantage (37%
vs. 23%) while women were more likely to think men have an advantage
(48% vs. 31%).

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