Learning about Adult Learners

students seated engaged and smiling in class
Student Success
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Janet Mizrahi is a continuing lecturer who teaches professional writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is also an author at BizCommBuzz.


When I look at a new crop of students and see a face too old for frat parties, I feel a little buzz of excitement. In my experience, adult learners are some of the most dedicated students I teach. However, this growing demographic of college learners come with their own expectations and challenges, so instructors must understand their situations to better meet their needs.

Who Are Adult Learners?

Today’s adult learners make up between one-third and 43 percent of all enrollees and are typically older than 25. The educational consulting firm EAB projects that the number of adult learners will grow by 21 percentage points by 2022, so adult learners will continue to make up a significant portion of the student body. These students have a host of differing circumstances but can be broken into two broad groups: those in their twenties who are working and going to school simultaneously; and older adults looking to broaden their career paths.

Some are veterans; some weren’t ready to attend college directly out of high school; many are sole caretakers for parents or young children; most (58 percent) work at least part-time. They may not have a high school diploma, may have attended at least a few college courses or have no experience in college level courses at all. Ethnically, they are as diverse as the population as a whole. It is clear these learners cannot be lumped into one profile.

However, they do share a common goal. The vast majority of adult learners are attending college to better their lives and advance their careers, but they are doing so under constrained circumstances that make them view themselves as workers first, students second. They are not looking simply for “retraining” but instead value the knowledge gained by a college education. And while they are not, as a group, interested in the traditional residential college experience, many do want socialization with other students.

Many adult learners come from underserved populations and are the first in their families to pursue higher education. Typically, these students take responsibility for their studies and are self-directed. In addition, they want to finish their degrees quickly.

What Are Adult Learners Looking for in a College Education?

Younger adult learners tend to be looking to enhance their careers and want tangible results in the shortest time possible. They enjoy learning applied, practical solutions that bring theory to life and need to understand why a topic or subject is relevant before they will dig in. Some older adult learners, on the other hand, often return to college simply to learn and gain personal fulfillment.

Unlike traditional college students, adult learners possess competencies gained from life experiences and look to college for personal transformation and growth. As testimony to their high personal motivation, adult learners have graduation rates of 80 percent or higher, whereas the average graduation rate for all learners within 6 years is 60 percent.

Experts advise that colleges provide PLA (Prior Learning Assessment) for adult learners so they receive credit for courses that teach what they have already learned, accelerated course formats so they can finish their degrees quickly, and flexibility within courses for aspects such as attendance so they can manage their multiple responsibilities.

In addition, adult learners:

  • Prefer assignments that are task- or problem-centered rather than subject-centered
  • Enjoy capstone projects and community-based learning experiences
  • Need access to librarians as well as academic support 24/7
  • Require cohort programs for peer support

When you see your next batch of students and realize several are not just out of high school, try a few of these tips. Doing so may make the learning experience more meaningful for them—and for you.

Ready for More Tips and Tricks?

Take a look at our recent ebook, The Student Engagement Exercise Handbook—it’s packed with tips, tricks and exercises you can use in your instruction to keep students engaged and learning.