Many states are working to increase college attainment among their residents, and for good reason: College degrees create significant economic opportunity for degree-holders and their communities. But reaching these attainment goals will be impossible if states focus only on recent high school graduates. Increasing attainment among adults is essential as well.

In this report, ideas42 seeks to explain what motivates adults to enroll in college, describes the supports they need, and suggests ways to address the challenges they face.


Many adults want to go to college, but not all follow through. Through interviews with adult learners at community colleges, we identified five barriers to enrollment:

  • Lack of external stimulus: Even when adults intend to enroll in college, they may not follow through unless an event or person pushes them.
  • (Im)plausible pathways: Many adults don’t understand how college could fit into their lives without relatable examples.
  • Money matters: Many adults are unaware of various ways to pay for college or believe they wouldn’t qualify for financial aid.
  • Hassles: Prospective students can be derailed by small hurdles, inconveniences, or administrative hassles.
  • Lack of reliable support: Many adults abandon the effort if they don’t receive reliable help navigating enrollment processes.

This guide also provides high-level ideas spanning four topics to inspire colleges and universities as they work to increase adult enrollment.

  • Reaching prospective students: How can you connect with adults in the target population?
  • Messaging and themes: How can communications resonate with prospective students?
  • Pre-enrollment supports: How do you sustain adult interest and drive enrollment?
  • Internal capacity building: What tools are needed to support the above activities?

We also offer thoughts on creating an implementation strategy at your institution and on combatting the most common behavioral barriers to enrollment.