Research tackles barriers for adult Utahns pursuing college degree, career change

Western Governors University (WGU) believed there was a gap between what prospective adult learners saw as barriers to education and what institutions saw the barriers to be. To better understand those questions, WGU, in partnership with the Utah System of Higher Education (USHE), commissioned in-depth research from Utah-based Cicero Group.

“It is important to hear perspective straight from those who know it best,” WGU Director of Utah Operations Ismar Vallecillos said. “Education is a personal journey unique to every learner, and we can’t make a change or help without the data.”

The polling reinforced affordability and other time commitments as hurdles for re-entry adult learners. It ranked family and work responsibilities as the top reasons (47 percent) that prevent students from completing their degree or certificate. The survey participants were separated into segments based on age, education, minority, and socioeconomic status (SES) to understand those barriers better.

“As this research details, with each individual journey comes a unique set of barriers for adult learners when accessing and completing a higher education,” USHE Commissioner Dave R. Woolstenhulme said. “Education leaders need to further develop unique solutions to ensure each student has a path to success. The Utah Board of Higher Education has committed in its strategic plan to address these barriers across public colleges over the coming years and looks forward to working with WGU to be a part of the solution.”

Survey respondents also identified the other major concerns or challenges relative to their personal education journey and the top-four concerns included:

Cost and other commitments continued to be highly ranked as obstructing factors from finishing an already-started program:

An Innovative Solution

With an average student age of 34 in Utah and 75 percent of students employed, WGU is uniquely equipped to reskill and upskill re-entry adult learners. The online college was specifically designed to meet the needs of this demographic and offers a flexible course model that can accommodate night shifts, parenting children and other commitments that do not align with a traditional class schedule. Terms begin the first of every month, so students can start as soon as it makes sense on their individual journey.

An estimated 370,000+ Utahns have some college but no degree. Attempting to better support these Utahns, the State Legislature made a significant investment during the 2021 legislative session when it passed the Adult Learners Grant Program. WGU and USHE were key advocates for the Adult Learners Grant Program, which was established to provide financial support to adult Utahns who pursue postsecondary credentials and degrees through eligible online programs. WGU pledged $1 million in scholarships to support the program. These funds are intended to reach a critical segment of the population that needs to upskill to advance in their careers and support the state’s evolving workforce needs.

“Education opens doors to opportunities,” Vallecillos said. “If returning to school or starting a degree is something you’ve always wanted to do, now is the perfect time to give yourself the gift of education. In my own life and the lives of countless others I have observed how education is the surest way to improve their current situation and pursue a more prosperous future. I have witnessed firsthand how education connects talent to opportunity—it becomes the catalyst for upward economic mobility.”

About WGU
Established in 1997 by 19 U.S. governors with a mission to expand access to high-quality, affordable higher education, online, nonprofit WGU now serves nearly 130,000 students nationwide and has more than 240,000 graduates in all 50 states. Driving innovation as the nation’s leading competency-based university, WGU has been recognized by the White House, state leaders, employers, and students as a model that works in postsecondary education. In just 24 years, the university has become a leading influence in changing the lives of individuals and families, and preparing the workforce needed in today’s rapidly evolving economy. WGU is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, has been named one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies, and has been featured on NPR, NBC Nightly News, CNN, and in The New York Times. Learn more at