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Eyes Wide Shut: Are Today’s Adult Learners Our Invisible Student Population?

As the traditional learner demographic shrinks, it’s critical to keep an eye on adult learners, who are becoming the new majority learner in higher ed.

Adult learners bring almost infinite potential for enrollment, are maneuvering through the rapidly changing world of work and potential multiple careers. Higher education values from their participation to advance equity, democratic participation and the well-being of families and communities, critical to our missions. This article is the first in a series on adult learners where we explore who they are, how they learn, and the essential questions that they raise for higher education.

Who are adult learners?

Most institutions define them by age, 25 years of age or older. Some call them nontraditional learners, a misnomer as they are often the majority of learners in higher education. The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) developed a more expansive schema for this understanding (NCES, 2002) through seven characteristics: delayed enrollment in postsecondary education, current part-time enrollment, financial independence of parents/caregivers, absence of a standard high school diploma, current full-time employment, responsible for dependents other than a spouse, is a single parent.

The NCES (2002) framework prescribes that adult learners hold at least one of these characteristics. If they hold two or three, they are defined as moderately nontraditional, and if four or more are held, are defined as highly nontraditional. This hierarchy correlates with graduation outcomes in NCES’s analysis with 23% of all adult learners identified as highly nontraditional of which 11% completed a bachelor’s degree. The more characteristics, the higher the incidence of stop out (NCES, 2002).

NCES’ schema is old. Using the 25 years of age, plus (25+) definition, The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, notes 8 million adult learners currently (CAEL, 2023). During COVID, 37% of adult learners stopped out with continued decline annually, representing about 36 million adult learners to reengage. Census data reflects meager success with 10.5% holding an associate and 23% holding a bachelor’s as their highest degree completed, coupled with 20% engaged in English as a Second Language study (2021).

Added characteristics for 25+ students include race, immigration, socioeconomic, caregiver, commuter, veteran, and first-generation student status which provide insight and understanding about adult learners. Census data (2021) reflect an overrepresentation of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) at the bachelor’s level: 28.1% of adult learners identify as Black, 61% as Asian and 20.6% as Latinx, and immigrants are also overrepresented with BIPOC intersections, (Census, 2021; Bold, 2021) with 14.9% having some college but no degree. Low socioeconomic status is overrepresented among adult learners with 56% at low income (200% below the poverty level) and an average income of $33,966. Over 8% earn less than $10,000 annually, and among all adult learners, student loan debt has increased over 300% in the past decade (Bold, 2021). They are four times as likely to not complete college as 46% are First-Generation students and have an income that is 165% lower than Second-Generation students (Bold, 2021).

Of all adult learners, 52% are veterans (Bold, 2021). These data compel us to think about issues of equity regarding adult learners. They are commuter students often without the benefit of participation in co-curricular life (McCall, 2005, and 1 out of 5, an estimated 4 million, are caregivers with 25% complete a degree given decreasing childcare options since COVID-19 (Aspen, 2021; Lumina, 2020). There is hope in this deep understanding of adult learners as their characteristics preview the assets they bring to their learning, providing higher education with ideas for institutional change.

Engaging Today’s Adult Learner

Malcolm Knowles (1950, 1970, 1975, 1984, 1989) was the first to position adults as learning differently from children. This andragogical model characterizes adults as self-directed and intrinsically motivated. They direct the pace and style of their learning and frame new knowledge based on prior knowledge and experience. They are ready to learn, focused on accomplishing specific objectives, and apply what they learn to their professional and personal lives.

Today’s adult is an educational consumer. They advocate for what they need and demand a significant return on their investment (Stevens, 2015). Yet, as Stevens (2014) argues, higher education continues to inadequately meet the needs of this important population. We label adults as non-traditional students while we cling to traditional instructional methods, which inhibit our ability to be creative and adaptive.

Co-Constructed Learning

Adults want to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their own instruction. Recognizing that individuals tend to own the decisions they make, involving adults in the design of a course leads to greater engagement and deeper learning. As educators, we are often unwilling to relinquish control of our course design. We should examine our own implicit bias that assumes we know best and partner with adults to explore new models. Adult learners are not a population separate and apart – we, as educators, are also adult and lifelong learners. How would we want to learn? How would we envision optimal learning experiences?

Experiential & Active Learning

Experiential learning judges the value of new incoming information as it augments or enhances our existing knowledge. This constant comparison of what is known versus what needs to be learned is an iterative process and provides the basis for discovery and synthesis with new subject matter (Kolb, 1984). Active learning strategies support experiential learning through case methods, simulations, problem solving exercises, field work, and group discussions. Many of these strategies are effective and welcomed by today’s adult learner.

Relevant and Applicable Content

Adults seek content that is current and applicable to real-world situations; Sogunro (2015) stresses that adults assess the utility and value of something before it is learned, and then apply that learning to a context. How many times have our students shared that what we did in last week’s class was immediately useful in their work? As educators, we should emphasize these benefits by making space in every class session for students to share how they were able to translate content into ‘action’.

Problem-Centered Learning

Adults want to apply their learning to a specific need. This is why adults seek stackable credentials or specific training to advance in their careers. As Ozuah (2005) noted, adults “organize learning around problems, not subjects” (p. 85).

Adults prefer assignments where they can progress through smaller, more manageable segments of content. Scaffolding breaks a complex assignment into digestible pieces, requiring less time, aiding in time management, and helping the student see where the work is leading them.

Finally, adult learners are mature, self-regulated, shaped by tumultuous changes in the world and in education. Our collective response to engaging them should be to hear them, see them, and follow their lead. If we continue to ignore their unique characteristics and contributions, we do so at our peril.

How many of your students are delaying enrollment? Have you seen your part-time enrollment climb? Do your students care for children, siblings or aging relatives? Are you engaging the assets adult learners bring to learning? Are our eyes wide shut? The lack of adult learner scholarship and practice suggests that we are content to leave adults at the margins. To examine adult learners from the singular identity of age limits the rich understanding higher education can glean from the complexity of their lives as well as the innovations we can build to support their success and change the hegemony of our institutions.


Aspen Institute. (2021). Student parents in college experience unique mental health challenges but lack access to support on campus.

Bold. (2021). A complete guide to boosting adult learner enrollment.

CAEL. (2023). Aligning learning and work. Council for adult and experiential learning.

Census. (2021). Educational attainment in the United States.

Knowles, M. S. (1950). Informal adult education. Association Press: NY

Knowles, M. S. (1970). The modern practice of adult education: Andragogy versus pedagogy. Association Press: NY.

Knowles, M. S. (1975). Self-directed learning. Chicago: Follett.

Knowles, M. S. (1984). Andragogy in action. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Knowles, M. S. (1989). The making of an adult educator. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Lumina (2020). Uncovering the student-parent experience and its impact on college success.

McCall, L. (2005). The complexity of intersectionality. Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 30(3), pp.1772-1800.

National Cener for Educational Statistics. (2002). Findings from the condition of education 2002: Nontraditional Undergraduates

Ozuah, P. O. (2005). First, there was pedagogy and then came andragogy. The Einstein Journal of Biology and Medicine, 21(2), pp. 83-87

Sogunro, O. A. (2015). Motivating factors for adult learners in higher education. International Journal of Higher Education, 4(1), pp. 22-37.

Stevens, J. (2014). Perceptions, attitudes, & preferences of adult learners in higher education: A national survey. Journal of Learning in Higher Education, 10(2), pp. 65-78

Taylor, E. (2003).  The relationship between the prior lives of adult educators and their beliefs about teaching adults. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 22(1), 59-77.

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