A survey by the New America’s Education Policy Program finds the older a student is, the less time they will likely spend researching colleges prior to enrolling.

The report, titled The Application Process, revealed 37% of adult learners ages 30-40 started their college search less than three months to the day of enrollment, compared to 26% of students ages 16-23.  Conversely, younger students (34%) were more than twice as likely as adult learners (15%) to start searching for colleges a year or more in advance.

The study, which includes surveyed responses from prospective students ages 16-40, provides a breakdown of the time spent on researching college, the number of schools applied to and the type of learning institution preferred across age cohorts among other topics.  With over 7,000 postsecondary institutions to choose from in the United States, the report’s findings offer an important glimpse into the factors that influence a student’s college choices.

For example, the report suggests high school students spend a longer time on the college research process and plan to apply to more schools relative to adult learners.  This is likely due to having more exposure to information and support from school counselors and peers about the application process.

In contrast, adult learners tend to apply to colleges closer to home and have a more focused idea of the skills and training they need.  These issues, combined with having less disposable time, tends to lead to a shorter and more narrow college search among adults compared to younger students.

Students also varied in their preferred learning environment depending on their age.  The survey showed 66% of students ages 16-19 planned to attend a ‘brick-and-mortar’ college or university, while 76% of adults ages 30-40 indicated a preference for online or hybrid options.  These numbers show adult learners tend to prioritize flexibility in their learning environment over other concerns in the school selection process, likely due to juggling life responsibilities like work and family.

The study recommends institutions and policymakers make online, hybrid and face-to-face program information more easily accessible on the web to help both younger and adult students select and enroll in a program best suited for their needs.

The Application Process, is the second report to be released throughout the summer as part of the 2015 College Decisions Survey, a series of briefs which observes how all prospective students (regardless of age at the time of enrollment) engage with the degree seeking and financing process. The next report to be released by New America will discuss what students know about the different ways to finance college.


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