Adult learners: Who they are & what they want from college

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Adult learners: who they are and what they want from college

Across the last few years, colleges and universities have increasingly prioritized adult learner enrollment to offset declining undergraduate enrollment and diversify revenue streams. One hundred percent of the presidents and provosts EAB surveyed in 2022 said adult learner enrollment is a high or moderate priority for their institution. And today, adult learners make up 42% of total higher ed revenue.

We’ve rounded up a few quick facts about adult learners—check them out below.

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Who they are

Typically, adult learners—sometimes called “non-traditional students,” although that definition is fading from the vernacular—are defined as students aged 25 or older. Adult learners are diverse because adults are diverse. Adult learners can be Baby Boomers or Gen Z, career changers, veterans, parents, caretakers of elderly parents, and more. Adult learners may have no experience with higher ed, may have taken a few undergraduate classes online or in-person, or may have completed multiple graduate degrees.

 

EAB estimates Gen Z will account for

0%

of the total adult learner population by 2031.

What they want from college

It’s no secret that most adult learners pursue higher education with the hopes of changing careers, advancing in their current career, increasing their earning potential, or to stay competitive in their current field. For this reason, it’s critical that adult-serving programs confer the skills employers most commonly seek in program graduates.

But not all adult learners are looking to higher ed to advance their careers. In our 2023 survey of adult learners, 30% said they want to further their education to pursue their passions, while more than a quarter of students said they seek additional education to help make a difference in the world. Whatever a student’s motivations for enrollment might be, it’s important that enrollment marketing teams understand student intent and can tailor marketing messages accordingly.

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How to support adult learners

For adult learners, the weight of career, family, and other personal obligations can make college especially difficult to navigate. Additionally, many of the support services available to first-time, full-time undergraduate students aren’t designed with adult learners in mind. For example, career counseling, financial aid, and other support services may be unavailable via virtual appointment or only open during traditional business hours—making them difficult for working professionals, parents, and others to access.

Finances: Adult learners tend to be cost-conscious. In our 2023 survey of adult learners, respondents identified financial aid, scholarships, and cost of attendance among the top factors they consider when making an enrollment decision. This is especially true of adult learners who started college but did not complete their degree. Thirty percent of surveyed adult learners who discontinued their education said they stopped out because of high costs. These students may also face financial impediments from their prior higher ed experience, such as student loan debt or lingering bursar holds. Given this cost-consciousness, it’s critical that leaders of adult-serving programs clearly communicate information about tuition, fees, and financial aid and scholarship opportunities.

Scheduling: While some adult learners prefer to complete programs full-time and attend daytime, weekday courses, adult learners’ competing priorities can make full-time and/or daytime courses difficult to attend for some. Flexible course schedules, including part-time, online, hybrid, and evening course options, can help attract and meet the needs of prospective adult learners.

Childcare: The Lumina Foundation estimates that 24% of adult learners have children or other dependents. Affordable, on-campus childcare helps improve these students’ odds of enrolling and succeeding in college. A survey of student parents found that 63% of respondents missed one or more classes due to a lack of childcare. As my colleague Valerie Gipson wrote, it’s no wonder than more than half of student-parents leave school without a degree.

Ultimately, no two adult learners are alike. Reaching, enrolling, and supporting adult learners requires strategies as unique as adult learners themselves.

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