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4 Things Adult Learners Should Look for in Higher Ed

Adult learners face unique challenges that traditional college students often don't. What are these challenges, and how can we combat them? Read on to find out.

When we picture the typical college student, a fresh-faced, eager 18–22-year-old may come to mind. While the 25-and-under age group still comprises much of the student population, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) predicted that nearly eight million college and university students in 2018 were older than 25 (compared to 12 million under 25). While it’s great to have diversity in the age of students, the problem is that higher education isn’t built to fit the lifestyle and needs of the older demographic.

Unlike their under-25 counterparts, today’s working adult college students are often returning to school after time away, and many possess at least one “non-traditional” characteristic like having a dependent or working full-time. They often require education that’s flexible and applicable to help them juggle school with work and family while learning skills they can immediately use in their career.

The barriers

University of Phoenix survey found that time and financial barriers are holding many working adults back from pursuing more education. According to the survey, nearly seven in 10 (68%) US working adults want to pursue more education, but only 45% said that they would be likely to go back to school considering the realistic barriers in their life. When asked what these barriers were, 69% said the financial investment, and 65% said debt. Close behind were classes that interfere with work and life (63%) and the workload required (59%).

Breaking down these barriers to higher education could lead to greater academic achievement for today’s adult learners. With no barriers in place, 80% of working adults said they would be “very or somewhat likely” to pursue more education. Among surveyed working adults who said they’re going to or are planning to go back to school, nearly half (49%) of respondents said they plan to enroll at an institution offering online programs.

Those numbers are on-trend with the rise in popularity and acceptance of universities offering online programs, with about one in six students attending classes online in 2017. This decision could be influenced by the flexibility online programs offer, which helps overcome some of the barriers to higher education.

Related: Online Degree Programs: The Pros and Cons You Need to Consider

While this is great for adult learners looking to return to school to enhance their education, it’s important that they make the distinction between online programs and those specifically built for working adults. Institutions that help break down barriers to pursuing education could encourage more working adults to pursue their educational dreams.

4 things to look for in a college

Below are four criteria working adults should consider when finding an institution to fit their needs. 

1. Small class sizes

Working adults often seek individualized attention and instruction. This is especially important in the online modality, where face-to-face interaction is limited or non-existent. Small class sizes allow faculty to individualize instruction and provide more context or support to students who need help understanding the course material. This can help working adults who have limited time for class and study while juggling work and family responsibilities.

2. Applied learning

It’s critical that classes are designed with a model of learning, practice, and application. This means exactly what you might think. Through this model, students are introduced to concepts they can understand and apply to real-life situations. This is important for working adults who may have less time to devote to learning a concept. They need education and industry knowledge they can apply immediately to their job or career prospects.

3. Practitioner faculty

Faculty who are also practitioners understand that working adult learners may need and want the shortest path from learning to making sense of something. They know this student population wants to apply their education immediately because they themselves are practitioners in the fields in which they teach. They bring a unique perspective to the classroom. Practitioner faculty have not only academic credentials but day-to-day professional experience to bring to the student-faculty relationship.

4. Professional applications

Adult learners—and frankly all students—may often wonder, “Why am I learning this?” It’s important that courses are designed with an eye toward practicality and context. Courses should include a clear explanation of why it should matter to the student as well as how it fits into their professional aspirations. Possessing this knowledge can help ensure a student is engaged and understands how the curriculum applies to their goals.

Related: How to Succeed in College as an Adult Student

Breaking barriers

The barriers many working adults face are often the direct result of an education system built for specific students that has not evolved to meet the needs of a diverse student population. While there are improvements, adults seeking higher education should be sure to consider offerings and modality that are specifically designed to fit their needs. It’s never too late to earn a degree, and programs that help break down barriers make it easier for allstudents to achieve their educational aspirations.

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About Dr. John Woods

Dr. John Woods is the chief academic officer and provost at University of Phoenix.


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