Higher education leaders love to segment their student population by different categories.

A popular one is to categorize adult learners by their motivation for returning to school. Marketers characterize students as returning to school to do things such as switch careers, change jobs, advance in their career, earn more money, or reskill or upskill.

Although these are perfectly fine categories—and reasons to return to school—they are one-dimensional.

They miss the circumstances—or context—surrounding individuals’ decisions. What made them say “Today is the day I’m going back to school” as opposed to months earlier when they also may have needed a boost in skills or desired a career switch?

Reasons like these also reduce a student’s motivation to one factor, when in reality, individuals and their lives are complicated. People take action for multiple reasons.

All too often these categories also reduce people’s motivations to a functional desire alone and neglect the social and emotional reasons that drive someone to take action.

By looking for causality—what were the sets of functional, social and emotional reasons someone decided to enroll today—there’s a better way to understand motivation and thus serve students.

Digging deep to understand causality is important—as I wrote about last week as well—because if a student is seeking to switch jobs, they could be doing it now because they’ve hit rock bottom at work, what they’re doing isn’t them, they know they can do better, and people in their life are relying on them.

Alternatively, she could be enrolling to do what she feels is expected of her. This individual isn’t actually intrinsically motivated to enroll. She’s doing it to satisfy others in her life, because it feels like the next logical step, and because she can’t see any other options.

Sure, she’ll check off that she’s enrolling to switch careers on a survey—but chances are high that while she may think leaving her current career is a good idea, she doesn’t have a strong sense of what to do instead.

Enrolling and successfully serving these two students—both of whom are looking to switch careers—requires radically different approaches.

Tapping into the emotion, as well as the support, that the learner who has hit rock bottom needs as she seeks to step it up is critical. Providing her a group that won’t let her fail will pay dividends.

On the other hand, if she enrolled to do what’s expected of her and without a clear internal sense of what she’s trying to accomplish, then a program that doesn’t give her the opportunity to explore and explicitly build her own intrinsic motivation for enrolling is unlikely to be successful or helpful.

This is why it’s important to take a different approach to categorizing why students enroll in school—one that is wrapped in a student’s context and encompasses the multi-faceted functional, social, and emotional reasons individuals make the choices they do.

That’s where our Jobs to Be Done research enters the equation. As we wrote in Choosing College, adult students enroll in school to help them step it up in their lives, extend themselves, do what’s expected of them, or get away—and occasionally to get into their best school for its own sake.

Each of these “jobs” captures an array of forces pushing and pulling them to enroll. In the case of a student looking to step it up, for example, the main forces pushing them to enroll are when:

  • This isn’t who they are/they need to step it up/they know they can do better;
  • They need to get out of this job/role/habit;
  • Time is running out/it’s now or never because…
    • They are facing a looming milestone (like expecting a child);
    • They are living paycheck-to-paycheck;
  • They are afraid of where things are headed.

And what’s pulling them is that they are looking to obtain specific, practical skills or certifications.

Once schools identify what “job” a student hired them to do, they can then further sort them by the question of whether they are looking to switch careers or gain a promotion and the like.

In other words, after understanding the causal mechanisms that drove them to enroll now, we can then place them into subcategories. Starting, however, with the one-dimensional view of why a student enrolled over-simplifies the situation and will cause a school to miss the deeper underlying reasons that are driving enrollment—and neglect critical experiences that students will need to be successful.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

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