Published on 2012/11/05

Five Statistical Reasons Why You Should Compete for Adult Students

Given the growth of the adult student population base, the reduction in state funding for higher education and the national emphasis on increasing the number of credential-holders, it is imperative that higher education institution begin making greater efforts to enroll and serve adult learners.

1. The adult student population is growing faster than the traditional age student population

Today, there are over 21 million post-secondary students enrolled in degree granting institutions in the United States,[1] and almost 8 million—or 38 percent—of them are over the age of 25.[2] However, the importance of this figure lies more in how it has grown over the last 10 years and how it will continue to grow over the next 10. Between 2000 and 2010, enrollments of students under 25 increased by 34 percent, whereas enrollments of students over 25 increased by 42 percent. Going forward, enrollments of students under 25 are only projected to increase by 11 percent between 2010 and 2020, whereas enrollments of students over 25 are expected to increase by 20 percent over the same period. This means that by 2020, there will be over 9.5 million post secondary students over the age of 25.[3]

What it means for you: The growing adult student population presents an opportunity to substantially grow enrollments.

2. Government funding for post-secondary education is on the decline and tuition hikes can not be counted on to make up the deficit

State funding for colleges and universities decreased by 7.6 percent in the 2011-2012 academic year, representing the largest decline in over 50 years.[4] This has resulted in a sharp increase in the amount of revenue that must be covered by tuition. At publicly funded colleges and universities, tuition made up 23 percent of net revenue in 1986, 37 percent of net revenue in 2006 and 43 percent of net revenue in 2011. In fact, since 1978, tuition fees have increased by 1,120 percent— which is 4 times faster than the Consumer Price Index.[5] While increasing tuition is one way to ensure that revenue does not take a nosedive, there is a breaking point; after England announced that they planned to significantly increase tuition costs, the number of applicants dropped by almost 9 percent between 2010 and 2012, resulting in 15,000 “missing applicants.” Further demonstrating that this drop was the result of the tuition hike, enrollments stayed stable in other parts of the UK where there was no tuition increase.[6]

What it means for you: Since government funding is not sufficient and students may rebel against over-inflated tuition fees, institutions must increase their enrollments and find new revenue streams in order to cover costs and continue to grow.

3. National economic prosperity depends on increased adult enrollments

By 2018, 63 percent of all jobs in the United States will require a post-secondary degree—a level of educational attainment currently possessed by 42 percent of the population.[7] At the current rate that degrees are being conferred, the workforce will be short 3 million degree holders by 2018 (24). Unless there is a substantial increase in the number of individuals pursuing a degree, average income per capita is expected to decline within the next 15 years.[8] In the past, institutions could look to the increase in high school students to increase their enrollments: between 1994-95 and 2006-07 the number of high school graduates jumped 27 percent. However, this trend has tapered off significantly such that between 2006-07 and 2019-20 the number of high school graduates is only expected to increase by a total of 1 percent.[9]

What it means for you: Increasing the number of degree holders is a national concern that cannot be solved by relying on traditional-age students.

4. With the proliferation of online learning, geography no longer presents a barrier to enrollment

In 2011, roughly 13.5 percent of students (2.78 million) enrolled at American colleges and universities were taking programs fully online,[9] with 78 percent of these online students over the age of 24.[10] To give you an idea how this impacts the bottom line, the American online post-secondary market is estimated to currently be worth $18.5 billion and is projected to increase to $28.3 billion by 2015.[11] The market is even larger when you consider that American post-secondary enrollments count for less than 12 percent of total enrollments worldwide—a 60 percent decrease in market share since 1970.[12] Growth outside of the US is not predicted to slow down. It is estimated that there will be 48 million new students enrolling in college or university in Asia between 1995 and 2020, equating to a need for 37,000 new university places each week.[13] With more students across the globe, there are more institutions worldwide looking to recruit students at home and abroad. For example: Singapore-based U21 Global has enrolled students from 72 countries and UK-based Open University has enrolled over 260,000 students from 41 countries—both including the United States.[14]

What it means for you: Online education presents an opportunity for institutions to capitalize on a whole new demographic of students, but it also opens the door for a whole new level of competition.

5. If you build it, they will come

For-profit schools gear their programs specifically to adult students. In 1970 they captured 0.2 percent of all enrollments at degree-granting institutions, but by 2009 this number had increased to 9.1 percent,[15] netting the for-profit sector $26 billion in 2009 alone.[16] While the agile structure of a for-profit schools can give them in edge in meeting the discriminating needs of adult students, non-profit schools can certainly stay in the race with a bit of dedicated effort. For example, responding to inquiries via phone or email within five minutes increases enrollments of adult students by nearly 300 percent.[17] Furthermore, corporations are looking for programs to educate their employees. However, although 95 percent of corporations have money budgeted for employee education, only 16 percent of em­ployers feel there is an adequate availability of col­lege programs tailored to their needs.[18]

What it means for you: With so many non-traditional students looking for educational opportunities, schools that cater to their needs will be well rewarded.

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[1] The National Center for Education Statistics, “Digest of Education Statistics, 2011,” 2012, Chapter 3.

[2] Jovita Ross-Gordon, “Research on Adult Learners: Supporting the Needs of a Student Population that is No Long Non-Traditional.” Peer Review Vol.13 (1), Winter 2011, p. 26.

[3] The National Center for Education Statistics, 2012.

[4] Doug Lederman, “State Support Slumps Again,” Inside Higher Ed, January 23, 2012, accessed October 30, 2012.

[5] Michelle Jamrisko and Ilan Kolet, “Cost of College Degree in the U.S. Soars 12 Fold,” Bloomberg, August 15, 2012, accessed October 30, 2012.

[6] Jeevan Vasagar, “Tuition Fees Increase Led to 15,000 Fewer Applicants,” The Guardian, August 9, 2012, accessed October 30, 2012.

[7] Linda Hoffman and Travis Reindl, “Complete to Compete: Improving Post Secondary Attainment Among Adults,” National Governor’s Association, February 2011, p. 5.

[8] The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, “Income of U.S. Workforce Projected to Decline IF Education Doesn’t Improve,” November 2005, p. 7.

[9] Tabitha Bailey and William Hussar, “Projections of Education Statistics to 2019,” National Center for Education Statistics, March 2011, p. 8.

[10] Paul Condra and Jeffrey Silber, “Equity Research: Education and Training,” BMO Capital Markets, September 2012, p. 358.

[11] Alexandria Walton Radford and Thomas Weko, “Learning at a Distance: Undergraduate Enrollment in Distace Education Courses and Degree Programs,” National Center for Eduction Statistics, October 2011, p. 11.

[12] Condra and Silber, 360.

[13] Martin West, “Education and Global Competitiveness.” Issues in Science & Technology Vol. 28 (3), Spring 2012, p. 39.

[14] Lara Couturier and Frank Newman, “Trading Public Good in the Higher Education Market,” The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, January 2002, p. 4.

[15] David Deming, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, “The For-Profit Post Secondary School Sector: Nimble Critters or Agile Predators?”  Journal of Economic Perspectives Vol. 26 (1), Winter 2012, p. 140.

[16] Robin Wilson, “For-Profit Colleges Change Higher Education’s Landscape,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 7, 2010, accessed October 30, 2012.

[17] Eran Goren, Brad Johnson, Art Stenmo, “10 Best Practices for Non-Traditional Student Recruitment,” Greenwood and Hall, November 2009, p. 6.

[18] Destiny Solutions, “The Voice of the Employer on the Effect and Opportunities of Professional Development,” May 2012, p 9.

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Readers Comments

Eileen Peters 2012/11/05 at 7:22 am

The global achievement gap is something that the U.S. should be really scared of, and this article presents some sobering facts to that effect; increasingly, jobs require specific post-secondary training. Even many manufacturing and labor jobs require such training now, jobs that fifty years ago were for any able-bodied person. And from a global perspective, the US is severely falling behind in training its population.

Not only is it proven that a better-educated society is more innovative, more productive, and stronger, but also if there is a dearth of adequately skilled workers here in the US, companies are just going to export those jobs abroad, or recruit immigrants who have the skills needed.

These are just two of the directions I can see coming, and I think this article provides a compelling argument for the US to improve their higher education system to be competitive in a global market.

Tina Nunez 2012/11/05 at 4:04 pm

I think it is important that non profit schools begin a more concerted effort to attract adult students, as for profit universities already have. It is imperative that non profit institutions do so, in my opinion, to safeguard the integrity and the quality of US higher education. For profit institutions have had the “agility”, as this article points out, and the foresight to adapt to adult learners– but what is lost in the for-profit model?

Education isn’t just like any other industry; when the bottom line becomes the priority in education, quality suffers, and I think that many of the advantages of higher education risk being lost. I think this is something we should be quite wary of.

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