Adult Students: 7 Things You Should Know

Adult Students

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Diversity. Few other places use the word as frequently as do higher education institutions in America today. Our campuses are comprised of an increasingly diverse student body that requires sufficient institutional considerations for policies, programs, and services regarding access, support, academics, student development, and co-curricular activities. Yet, are institutions adequately responding to the diversity? Better yet, are they responding to each of the various groups (LGBT, race/ethnicity, social class, age) that now contribute to campus diversity?

One subgroup of students that is often overlooked is adult students in higher education. As the attainment of a college degree becomes more widespread, higher education is seeing an influx of adult students who are coming back to finish a degree, start a degree, or continue on to a higher degree. Yet, “higher education researchers have paid little attention to the experiences of adult learners within higher education…” (Renn & Reason, 2013, p. 14). Perhaps one reason that this subgroup has been largely overlooked is the difficulty that accompanies attempts to define what constitutes an “adult learner.” Renn & Reason (2013) discuss various definitions used, ranging from a broad “older than typical” to a conservative “twenty-five years of age or older” (p. 14). For purposes of this brief list, we’ll informally adopt the latter definition as a framework through which to consider an “adult” student in higher education.

Seven Things You Should Know:

  1. Responding to the needs of adult learners in higher education is important.

    In 2004, over 60 percent of the US population between the ages of 25 and 64 had no postsecondary education credential (Jobs for the Future, 2007, p. 6) and Dr. Peter J. Stokes, Executive Vice President of Eduventures LLC, notes in his 2006 issue paper that the US was ranked seventh in the world with respect to the proportion of adults in that age range with some postsecondary education credential though the US had once led the world in educational attainment (Stokes, 2006, p. 3). And in a reality where 90 percent of the fastest growing jobs require some form of postsecondary education (Stokes, 2006, p. 2), our national health and our position within the larger world economy are dependent on highly educated workers (Jobs for the Future, 2007, p. 2).

  1. Adult students are a diverse subgroup themselves.

    Some enroll at community colleges, some attend more traditional four-year institutions, and some choose for-profit institutions. Some adults simply delayed enrollment for a few years, some are enrolling many years after high school. Some are going back to finish a degree they’d already started, others are starting a brand new degree. Still others are enrolling in higher education for graduate degrees while others are looking for continuing education credits. Some decide to pursue school full-time, others attend part-time, and still other adults choose newly emerging options such as online education. There is no one typical experience of an adult student in higher education and thus our initiatives must be broad, far-reaching, and applicable to many adult learners at varying points in their educational careers.

  1. Despite the diversity within the subgroup of adult learners, they do often share common experiences that set them apart from other subgroups.

    In particular, their experiences are often very different from those of traditional undergraduates. Adult students are often financially independent, employed either part-time or full-time, and have dependents (other than a spouse) (Jobs for the Future, 2007, p. 2). Their primary purpose for enrolling in higher education is to pursue the necessary learning and credentials for their employment; they can be characterized as employees who study rather than students who work (Jobs for the Future, 2007, p. Preface). These distinctions are associated with specific challenges and needs that must be considered when determining how to best serve adult students in higher education.

  1. Because adult students are typically non-traditional, they require a “non-traditional” approach to course, certificate, and degree programs in order to improve access.

    With respect to their busy lives, adult students will most likely have an unsuccessful educational experience if they find it to be inconvenient and incompatible with the rest of their lives. Working adults are usually unable to attend traditional day-time, on-campus classes; they may struggle with assignment completion between frequent classes; and their ability to consistently participate in a traditional-length program depends greatly on their varying life circumstances. Online learning, shorter programs, accelerated options, classes that meet one night a week or on weekends only, courses offered in convenient locations (workplaces, neighborhoods, satellite campuses), programs with multiple entry, exit, or reentry points, and fully or partially self-paced coursework are all examples of methods to increase access for adult students (Jobs for the Future, 2007; Stokes, 2006).

  1. Adult students require intentional consideration on the part of administrators, curriculum designers, and faculty with regard to effective pedagogy and instruction.

    The traditional postsecondary instructional method of lectures, textbooks, and passive learning will certainly not serve the needs of adult learners. “For adult learners, these traditional teaching methods can not only demean and infantilize them, but they do not acknowledge the real-life experiences and knowledge that the students bring to class … Adult learners benefit from active engagement in defining the learning program and approach, from methods that tap their experience base as workers and in other aspects of life, and from learning that is structured in ways that align with work settings—in teams, group discussions, emphasizing skill practice, use of technology, and use of case method to elicit lessons” (Jobs for the Future, 2007, p. 17).

  1. Adult students tend to have lower postsecondary persistence and completion rates than do traditional students.  

    In the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) 2002 report Nontraditional Undergraduates, non-traditional students were defined as students with any of seven characteristic risk factors: delayed enrollment, part-time attendance, financial independence, full-time work, having dependents (other than a spouse), being a single parent, and having no high school diploma or GED. Students who fit four or more of these characteristics are labeled as “highly non-traditional” (Choy, 2002, p. 7f). Therefore, many adult students entering higher education could be classified as highly non-traditional students who are at-risk with regard to persistence and completion. Additionally, they often have weak prior academic preparation (Jobs for the Future, 2007, p. 15). Because of this, adult students need additional supports in order to succeed. Counseling, academic and career advising, access to information about educational options, library services, nontraditional support hours/locations, online services, and tutoring are all ways to respond to the at-risk nature of adult students (Jobs for the Future, 2007; Stokes, 2006; The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, 2000).

  1. There are ways higher education institutions can respond to and meet the needs of adult students.

    Beginning with the challenge of accessibility, one recommendation is to improve the transferability of credits. Many adults find that their prior learning, experiences, and credits do not count toward their desired new degree. It is recommended that institutions evaluate adult learners’ prior knowledge and experience—even from nontraditional formats such as corporate training, seminars, certificates, work experience, and the like. Another recommendation to better serve adult students with respect to access is to utilize and improve online learning. The flexibility, convenience, and pacing of online programs can help to provide adults with a quality education while simultaneously acknowledging and responding to their unique needs.

    With respect to affordability, one recommendation is to provide more flexible financial aid policies, especially for adults enrolled part-time. Stokes (2006) suggests that innovative programs such as Lifelong Learning Accounts (LiLAs) (employer-matched, portable accounts that workers use to finance education and training (The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, 2014)) and a focus on increasing grant aid rather than student loans or tax credits may help adult students with the issue of affordability (p. 3).

    With respect to pedagogy and instruction, use of experiential and problem-based methods that help them connect curricular ideas to useful knowledge and skills is imperative (The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, 2000; Jobs for the Future, 2007, p. 21). Additionally, regarding the practical orientation for adults’ learning, higher education institutions should form strategic partnerships with employers and associations “so they can design curricula, projects, lessons, and assessments that maximize the institution’s ability to integrate job-related content into instruction, build on learners’ job-related knowledge and motivations, and organize instruction to help students learn what they need to move forward in their future careers” (Jobs for the Future, 2007, p. 22).

    Lastly, efforts to better support adult students are essential to their success. Jobs for the Future (2007) notes that “because adult learners typically have spent a significant amount of time away from the classroom, they often require additional supports to succeed” (p. 17). It is recommended that support is available for adult students from both non-academic and academic perspectives. Finding child care, needing personal counseling, or improving time management skills may be examples of non-academic areas worth addressing in order to improve adult students’ chances of success. Academic advice and support such as tutoring, financial aid advising, and perhaps most importantly—career advising—are also necessary (Jobs for the Future, 2007, p. 17). Additionally, many of these services should be available online and/or at non-traditional times so as to fit within adult learners’ schedules.

Clearly, adult learners are a very significant and unique subgroup of higher education students in America. Yet, despite their increasing presence and the necessity of considering their distinctive experiences, they are often overlooked and their needs are often left unmet. Though minimal research has been conducted and there have been some institutional responses to the associated challenges of access, affordability, pedagogy, and support, we have not gone far enough. The research and data must expand in order to paint a better picture of how the unique needs of adult learners may be met without sacrificing educational quality; institutional efforts to meet these needs must become more widespread as higher education begins to seriously incorporate the purposes and intended outcomes of adult learning into their missions. Until then, a substantial portion of America’s higher education students will continue to be underserved and consequently, the health of our nation’s workforce will fail to live up to its full potential.


Choy, S. (2002). Nontraditional Undergraduates: Findings from “The Conditions of Education, 2002.”. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Jobs for the Future. (2007). Adult Learners in Higher Education: Barriers to Success and Strategies to Improve Results. Washington, D.C.: ETA Occasional Papers.

Renn, K. A., & Reason, R. D. (2013). College Students in the United States: Characteristics, Experiences, and Outcomes. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Stokes, P. J. (2006). Retrieved from

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. (2014, September 28). LiLAS. Retrieved from What is a LiLA?:

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. (2000). Serving Adult Learners in Higher Education: Principles of Effectiveness. Chicago: Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL).

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