nationwide survey of adults by LinkedIn and SimpsonScarborough shows a significant increase in adults interested in education—at nearly 50%. Of those, 80% indicated an interest in pursuing that education online.

That may not be surprising, but reader beware.

To gain the full impact from the research, higher education institutions must look beneath the reported averages and aggregated totals of adults. Not doing so could cause institutions to lump prospective learners together who are seeking more education for two fundamentally different sets of reasons—or Jobs to Be Done—and therefore must be recruited and served differently.

Conflating these two Jobs to Be Done and creating messaging that targets all adults based on their demographic and average motivation would be a mistake.

To be clear, the reported survey results don’t segment the adults by causality and circumstance, but big clues in the report suggest that two distinct sets of reasons exist.

Jobs to Be Done and why students enroll in school

To understand the nuance, it is important to be clear about what a Job to Be Done is. A Job to Be Done is the progress someone seeks in a struggling circumstance. The framework focuses on uncovering causality, not correlation. What causes someone to take a certain action—in this case seeking more education—and, importantly, why now?

Jobs to Be Done also recognizes that people don’t make a decision for just one reason. People do things for a multitude of functional, emotional, and social reasons. A Job to Be Done encapsulates the set of forces that cause someone to take action.

In our book Choosing College, we uncovered five Jobs to Be Done for why individuals enroll in education after high school. The book goes into far more depth than I can here, but the two Jobs to Be Done that the LinkedIn and SimpsonScarborough survey appears to have picked up are what we call “Help Me Extend Myself” and “Help Me Step It Up.”

Students seeking to extend themselves are looking to enroll to learn more and challenge themselves, pursue a clear vision, and earn specific skills or certifications. They enroll when they feel they are ready at last, have the time to attend, and can fit it into their life and budget.

Those seeking to step it up say that what they are presently doing isn’t who they are, and they need to step it up because they know they can do better. Whereas those seeking to extend themselves are OK with what they are doing presently, students looking to school to help them step it up need to get out of their current job or role. For them, it’s not that they are ready at last—it’s that they feel that time is running out on them. It’s now or never because they are facing a looming milestone and others are relying on them, or they’re sick of living paycheck to paycheck. They are generally afraid of where things are headed unless they take action.

Identifying jobs in the survey findings

So how do the findings from the survey relate?

A significant percentage—49%—of adults looking to pursue more education say it’s for “personal interest/enrichment.” That sure sounds like the “Help me extend myself” job.

The survey also suggests that a high percentage—38%—are seeking to learn so they can update their skills to change their career field. And of these, 66% are seeking to earn more money.

What are we to make of this finding? Many would be tempted to say that sounds like the step it up job and conflate these findings.

But the released survey data is not specific enough to conclude something definitively. Some of this 38% could be looking to extend themselves—chasing a dream they’ve long held and now they have the time to pursue it, but they’ll be OK if it doesn’t work out and they don’t make the change. Or they could be looking to step it up in more dire, “now-or-never” circumstances.

But does the fact that so many of these individuals want to earn more money give us more of a clue? Not necessarily. Earning more money can’t hurt anyone, but understanding why—the causality—behind the desire to earn more money is important. Those seeking to step it up likely need more money because people are relying on them and they’re sick of living paycheck to paycheck.

This matters because there’s a sense of urgency that’s critical to capture in reaching out to these learners, but that same sense of urgency simply won’t exist for those seeking to extend themselves for whom more money is, of course, a desire, but not as existential. Speaking with that urgency would misunderstand—and talk past—these learners.

Does that matter? Perhaps not at a functional level, but to serve these students well, understanding why they are enrolling at a social and emotional level, and tailoring accordingly, matters.

Why this matters

Why does all this matter? The survey from LinkedIn and SimpsonScarborough contains important data that can be tremendously valuable, but only if paired with a real understanding of what causes people to enroll and the different circumstances in which they find themselves.

Without that context—and without an understanding of the language that individuals, not institutions and pollsters, use to describe their actions—it’s all too easy to lump all adults together as one demographic and one persona and misfire with a one-size-fits-none marketing campaign and educational offering.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.