Adult learners forging new paths in higher education

Numerous studies continue to show the rise in the number of working adults going to college. Journalist and university journalism professor Larry Atkins rolled up several of them in a recent Huffington Post article.

  • Between 1995 and 2006, the enrollment of students over age 25 rose by 13 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
  • In 2007, more than 40 percent of U.S. college students were over age 25, also according to the NCES.
  • Approximately 5 million, or 25 percent, of college students nationwide are over age 30, according to 2010 U.S. Department of Education statistics.

I also dug through NCES’s statistics myself, and found that between 2000 and 2009, the enrollment of students 25 and over increased by 43 percent.

The trend of working adults going to college is not new — it’s clearly been showing steady growth over the past decade or so, and is on track to continue at this healthy clip. However, Larry made a good point in his article that I wanted to discuss further.

He wrote: “Generally, most of the older students in my classes have done very well and been able to keep up with their younger counterparts. They tend to be highly motivated, responsible, hard working, deeply involved in class participation, and aware of their goals. They often juggle full time or part time jobs with their school work and have families to raise. Since they are paying for their education themselves without help from their parents, they tend to be highly focused on school work.”

Larry is talking about some specific attributes of adult learners that we as educators must be attuned to as we develop and make learning opportunities available to working adults and lifelong learners. Online education, for example, is opening the door to many students who otherwise would not be able to pursue higher education. We’ve featured several working adult students on our blog who speak to the benefits of pursuing a degree online.

I have a few other thoughts on this, which I wrote about in the comment I left on the article. Flip over there for the rest, and then come back to let me know what you think. If you’re a working adult, what’s your experience been like pursuing higher education or getting your college degree?


  1. One of the top keys for standing out in today's world is to become committed to lifelong learning! Kudos to your faculty, staff and students for all that you do. It was a pleasure to recently speak at the Women's Business Forum sponsored by Post. Thank you for the opportunity!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Connie. Your keynote presentation at the Business Women’s Forum was fantastic, and has generated a tremendous amount of conversation about the “shapes” within our organization.

  3. I got my degrees later in life and I have to say that for me it was the right thing to do – I just was not ready to for 'learning' before hand and as a youngster, I could not see the point in it. It was not until I had, had experience of the world that the point of learning actually seemed relevant to anything. Buy that time kifes interest and my carrier had become a part of who I was – the only thing holding me back was the right 'pieces of paper' that told the people I worked with that I was qualified to the job I had been doing for years.

    Life with students less than half my age was difficult at first but they appreciated having 'Grandad' around particularly when difficulties with the lecturers needed dealing with. It seemed I was always nominated for that! Mind you I don't know if it was because I could talk with the faculty staff as an equal or the fact that I was older than many of them that our negotiations always seemed to end favourably.

    I got more out of being an older student than just qualifications. Even now – decades later my outlook has remained younger than my contemporaries of the same age. I'm open to the new things that many find difficult. I'm sure thinking young thoughts helps keep us young in mind and body and more able to stave off the normal signs of getting older.

    I can thoroughly recommend going to collage or university to anyone of mature years. You'll find out more about yourself than anything else. and most of it will surprise and maybe even delight you.

    Rather than see things as something I should have done when I was younger – I'm ready to tackle anything that interests me now especially if it has something to do with my precocious cats. That's something else I started later in life too.

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