Forty-two percent of people say cost of tuition is the biggest hurdle they face in going back to school, according to a recent Google consumer survey conducted by Collegis Education.*

Twenty-three percent of respondents said juggling their school and career would be prohibitive to pursuing more education while 13 percent felt unable to juggle school and family. “Fitting in” (13 percent) and “comfort with technology” (6 percent) rounded out the top challenges cited.

The concerns around cost were not surprising considering the annual price of tuition, room and board rose 39 percent for public institutions and 27 percent for private nonprofits from 2003 to 2013 (note: the cost of private for-profit institutions decreased 7 percent over the same time period).

While both genders cited cost as a prohibitive factor in pursuing more education, specific differences between genders emerged elsewhere. Overall, men appeared to be more concerned about fitting in, and the ability to juggle school and career; women, however, seemed less comfortable with technology and the ability to juggle school and family.

Such gender-specific information can help inform higher-level strategies — like expanding modality, improving course offerings and redefining curricula — as colleges and universities look to grow enrollments by targeting specific population segments.

‘I can’t juggle work and school’ (23 percent overall)

back to school challenges menTwenty-three percent of all respondents cited work/school balance as the biggest hurdle faced in going back to the classroom. Overall, 26 percent of men shared this concern, compared to 20 percent of women.

Concern about careers stayed consistent for men of all age groups between 25-54 years old, but the trend shifted for those at the ends of the spectrum.

Twenty-eight percent of women 18–24 years old worried about work/school balance, compared to 22 percent of men in the same age group. The gap between 55–64-year-old men and women was far greater — 38 percent of women compared to 16 percent of men.

Colleges and universities hoping to attract more women to specific programs — STEM, social work and criminal justice, for example — may consider adjusting recruitment strategies and messaging for their youngest and oldest target markets.

‘I can’t juggle family and school’ (13 percent overall)

back to school challenges womenThirteen percent of all respondents worried about their ability to juggle family obligations and school. The gender breakdown showed 16 percent of women struggle with the family/school balance, compared to 10 percent of men.

But the age-specific breakdown revealed some interesting results. The focus on family holds true for the youngest respondents but shifts once individuals reach the 35–44 age group. Three times more men than women in this age group appeared concerned with balancing family obligations and school. The trend shifts again after women reach age 45.

‘I won’t fit in’ (13 percent overall)

Another 13 percent of all respondents were most concerned about fitting in on campuses and in classrooms. In fact, men (15 percent) were almost twice as concerned with fitting in as their women counterparts (8 percent).

For men, the results of the survey revealed an inverse relationship between age and comfort on campus. The older men get, the more worried they become about fitting in. Women, on the other hand, appeared to maintain a consistent level of self-consciousness, regardless of age.

This may represent an opportunity for higher education institutions to reconsider the student experience on campus. Frat parties and pre-game tailgating are important social outings to certain sectors of the student population. But events, activities and groups devoted to networking, studying and meeting new people may help build comfort and community among older students.

‘I’m not comfortable with technology’ (6 percent overall)

Six percent of all respondents pointed to their discomfort with technology as a prohibitive factor in going back to school. Men appeared slightly less concerned than women — 4 percent vs. 6 percent, respectively — but the difference in percentage and small sample size are too small to yield compelling results.

The age-specific breakdown for this question revealed somewhat predictable results. Younger respondents — i.e., those more likely to have been raised to use and understand technology from an early age — were less concerned about using it in college than their older counterparts.

It is interesting to note that 35–44-year-old men and women were most concerned about using technology. One explanation could be that this segment knows what it doesn’t know. Older respondents may be less familiar with the potential uses and pitfalls for technology in the classroom.

4 takeaways higher ed institutions can’t ignore

Time and money proved to be the biggest concerns respondents had about going back to school. Higher education institutions are experimenting with creative cost-saving solutions like scholarships and tuition-reductions, but they cannot afford to ignore the host of other concerns facing prospective students.

Whether time constraints are due to family obligations or career aspirations, they remain significant obstacles for almost 40 percent of those considering a return to the classroom. Online degrees and self-paced courses can help students achieve their education goals more efficiently and ease time constraints, but a demonstrated discomfort with technology may offset the benefits of added modality options.

The idea of “fitting in” remains a strong deterrent for adult learners. This is something colleges and universities across America need to address as enrollments continue to decline and the pool of prospective students fluctuates.


*Google Consumer Survey, May 27-29, 2015. Sample: 509 online responses to the question “What is your biggest hurdle in going back to college?” All respondents first answered “Yes” or “Not Sure” to the filter question: “Are you considering going back to college in the next six months?” The results reached 95% confidence along with the appropriate sample size needed, which signals a strong representation of the target audience.