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Becoming the Majority: Adult Students on the Rise

Becoming the Majority: Adult Students on the Rise
Institutions that are able to adapt their programming and operations to changing demographic trends will be the best poised to succeed.

For the last 30 years, a trend has been occurring in American higher education. More and more adults, aged 25 and older, have been going back to college or starting college for the first time. While some adults have always sought higher education, it has become more and more prevalent since the late 1970s. According to Aslanian and Giles, “Today more than 40 percent of all higher education enrollments are students age 25 and older.” [1] In the last 10 years, this demographic has exploded while colleges have generally been slow to respond.

Private proprietary and private not-for-profit colleges and universities lead the pack over state schools in addressing the needs of adult students. Adult students require unique programs because going to classes during the day is typically not an option. This uniqueness comes in the form of more sophisticated advising, degrees in career-related fields and formats that allow adult students to maintain their professional and personal commitments. The following all identify aspects of successful adult degree programs:

  • Accelerated classes
  • Weekend, one-night-a-week and online formats
  • Specialized advising and financial aid assistance
  • Degree mapping and prior learning credit
  • Cohort programs
  • More effective transfer policies

Adults “want shorter course schedules, prefer to complete their degrees in less time and with more flexibility, and are increasingly looking to the power of online instruction to enable them to simultaneously learn, work and juggle family and life responsibilities.” [2]

As adult students become the majority in higher education, colleges and universities will need to decide how to serve this population. This paradigm shift will cause changes in funding allocations, support services, degree options and in the marketing and branding strategies of colleges and universities. Aslanian and Giles go on to say, “The postsecondary institutions that are most successful in serving adult students are those that are nimble, flexible and savvy enough to leverage technology and scheduling to meet the demands of this very busy, overscheduled population.” [3]

With the instability of world economies, one of the best ways for colleges and universities to meet the demand of adult students is through partnerships. Partnerships lead to collaborations, best practices and services that benefit adult and traditional students alike. Most commonly, these partners exist between two-year and four-year colleges with a mix between private not-for-profit colleges, state-supported universities and state-supported community colleges. There are also a growing number of consortia that offer an array of programs and services shared among many academic organizations to service the needs of adult students.

Colleges and universities should be aware of this trend and make strategic plans accordingly. Even if an academic organization is not going to service adult students, it should strategically plan how it will remain sustainable as student demographics change.

This trend is not expected to change in the foreseeable future. According to Aslanian and Giles, “By 2015, it is predicted that adult enrollments will increase at a higher rate than traditional-age enrollments.”  Because of this, colleges and universities have a prime opportunity to make an impact on adults, their local community and even the world.

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[1] Carol Aslanian and Natalie Green Giles, “Hindsight, Insight, Foresight: Understanding Adult Learning Trends to Predict Future Opportunities,” EducationDynamics, 2009, p. 2

[2] Ibid, p. 4

[3] Ibid

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