Union University
Union University Center for Faculty Development
Center for Faculty Development

Center Resources

Teaching & Advising > Adult Learner Resources

Highlights from Adult Learning in America

By Carol B. Aslanian

Adult students--those students 25 years of age and older--now make up close to 50 percent of all college enrollments in the U.S.  For every college student under 25 in a college classroom.  there's a student over 25 sitting side by side.  This represents a 50% growth rate of adult students in the past 20 years--a major factor in the steady rise in college enrollments over recent decades...from 8 1/2 million in 1970 to an expected 15 million by 2000.  Traditional-aged students are no longer the norm on American campuses.

To better understand the adult student, the College Board just completed a nationwide study to describe and explain this new force in American higher education.  More than 100,000 households in all 50 states were screened to locate adults who had returned to undergraduate and graduate programs when they were 25 years of age and older.  Here are some highlights from the survey:

  • The typical adult student is a white, 33 years-old female, working full time. (65% of adult students are women.)

  • The single most important reason for returning to college--reported by 90% of the adults--dealt with the adult's job/career.  Adults return to schooling to gain new competencies to enter, change, or advance in their careers.  Many learn just to keep up with current jobs.

  • There is always a trigger/life event in an adult's life that sets the time for returning to school--like divorce, loss of job, children moving on, changing technologies, etc.

  • Although working and managing families, 30% of all adult students study on a full-time basis.

  • As many students study during the day (45%) as in the evening (45%)--"night school" is no longer synonymous with adult school.

  • Adults enroll in shorter, faster-paced courses as often as they enroll in traditional-length, 15-week courses.

  • 70% seek degrees--they are not casual learners, enrolled in one course or another, without goals.

  • At the undergraduate level, adults study BUSINESS most often, at the graduate level, the most popular major is EDUCATION.

  • At the undergraduate level, 50% study at a community college and 50% at a four-year college.

These and many other findings are leading the College Board toward these conclusions:

  1. Age no longer predicts learning patterns--adults are studying day and evening, full time and part time in all units of a college; younger aged students are doing likewise; younger and older students are looking more alike than different.

  2. Adults have been and will continue to be the major force in steady enrollment increases in higher education--in maintaining higher education as a growth industry.

  3. Adults learn more often in college divisions not designed for them than in the traditional adult education programs--that is, they are mainstreamed throughout the college campus.

  4. Many adults return to community college with 4 years of college study behind them (about 25%)--they use community colleges for career preparation or "graduate study."

  5. Colleges have begun and will continue to "turn themselves inside out" to accommodate adult preferences: early morning and late evening schedules, weekend college, accelerated study, off-campus locations, and CLIENT-centered services.

  6. More and more adults will study through their employers in "contract education" programs set up between colleges and employers.

  7. More and more adults will study through distance learning technologies--on-line computer courses, and two-way interactive video. (60% of the adults in the study said they that they were computer literate.)

Source:  The Changing World of Adult Learning: Meeting the Needs of Tomorrow's Adult Students, The College Board

"Only the devil has an answer for our moral difficulties, and he says: 'Keep on posing problems, and you will escape the necessity of obedience.' But Jesus is not interested in the young man's problems; he is interested in the young man himself."
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer; The Cost of Discipleship