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

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

Facts about the adult learner market

Lately, it seems like every two- and four-year college is talking about the adult learner market and how to attract, recruit, and support this elusive student population.

By 2022, EAB projects that the number of students aged 25 to 34 will increase by 21 percentage points (with more than twice as much growth in master’s degree enrollment than bachelor’s). At the same time, community colleges are seeing major enrollment declines among adult learners because of increased competition from four-year colleges and for-profit institutions. Between 2011 and 2017, community colleges lost 436 adult enrollments to every one enrollment four-year institutions lost, according to the Community College Executive Forum‘s analysis of adult enrollment data.

To help you facilitate conversations about this population, we’ve rounded up a few quick facts about adult learners.

38%

of undergrads are older than 25
of undergrads are older than 25

Who they are

Typically, adult learners are defined as students aged 25 and older. They make up nearly half of all students currently enrolled in colleges and universities, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Looking at undergraduate students alone, the Lumina Foundation reports that about 38% are older than 25, more than 25% are raising children, and about 58% work while enrolled in college.

Adult learners are diverse because adults are diverse. Adult learners could be Baby Boomers or millennials, veterans, parents, career changers, and more. They have varying levels of prior experience with college—they might have no experience with higher ed, might have taken a few classes online or in-person, or might have completed multiple degrees. 

What they want from college

Many adult learners pursue higher education with the hopes of changing careers, to expand their career options, or to stay competitive in their current career by earning new credentials. Some want to complete a degree after other priorities—like family or military service—put their education plans on hold. Others simply want to keep learning.

57%

of surveyed adults say a bachelor's degree is a good investment
of surveyed adults say a bachelor’s degree is a good investment

The top priority for adult learners is finding programs that will be relevant to their chosen careers. In a 2018 study by Public Agenda and The Kresge Foundation, slightly more surveyed adults said a bachelor’s degree is a good investment (57%) than said the same about an associate degree or certificate (47%). A third speculated that an associate degree or certificate wouldn’t guarantee them a better job.

The 2013 survey by Public Agenda and The Kresge Foundation offers similar results. The survey found that 70% of adult prospective students say skills and knowledge directly relevant to the workplace are absolutely essential when choosing a school. It also found that taking on too much debt is adults’ top concern.

Within this context, employer partnerships can be helpful for recruiting and serving adult learners, suggests one study from EAB’s Community College Executive Forum.

Many adult learners also intend to transfer from a two-year college to a four-year college. But research suggests that only 23% of community college students who intend to attain a bachelor’s degree successfully earn a one within eight years.

How to support adult learners

For adult learners, the weight of external responsibilities can make college especially difficult to navigate. About 38% of students with outside financial, work, or family obligations leave within their first year, according to the Lumina Foundation.

Finances: Adult learners who attended college in the past, but don’t have a degree, could have existing student debt, which makes finances a major barrier to success. Roughly 60% of U.S. adults have considered returning to college, but 70% say they couldn’t afford it.

Scheduling: Adult learners’ competing priorities make the traditionally “rigid” academic calendar difficult to navigate, suggests EAB research. Additional research has found that flexible course schedules and compressed, hybrid courses can also help. For example, Bellevue University offers students four-week courses on campus or online, any time of year. Similarly, the University of Wisconsin—Madison (UW) offers open-entry or early-exit courses designed to move students through lessons at their own pace.

Childcare: Many adult learners are also parents. Affordable, on-campus childcare helps improve their odds of returning to college the following year by 17 points (68% vs. 51%) and their odds of graduating on time by 26 points (41% vs. 15%), according to eight years of data from Monroe Community College.

Sources: Fast Facts, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed 1/8/18; Lumina Foundation report, accessed 1/8/18; Public Agenda report, accessed 1/8/18; EAB Community College Executive Forum report, accessed 1/8/18; Templin/Deane, Inside Higher Ed, 10/9/17; EAB expert insight, 7/24/17; Hussak, EAB blogs, 6/26/18; Harris, The Atlantic, 5/11/18; Public Agenda report, accessed 10/22/19; Ashford, Community College Daily, 4/19/19

Read more about adult learners