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The Adult Learner in a Post-COVID World

The Adult Learner in a Post-COVID World
In the aftermath of the pandemic, adult learners make up a more significant chunk of the higher ed population than ever before. Institutions must thus focus on responding to their diverse needs to support their academic and professional success.

This past July, I had the pleasure of traveling to New York City to attend the tenth annual GED Conference for Adult Education Learners. First to be blessed with travel to New York, what better place to host hundreds of professionals from K-12 and higher education than the Big Apple? Secondly, to be surrounded by so many passionate professionals dedicated to adult learners’ success, especially in a post-COVID world, the experience was indeed food to my soul.

With the COVID-19 pandemic three years in our rearview, the pendulum in higher education has shifted again turned with institutions of higher learning providing some return to normalcy with in-person classes and a hybrid option. In addition, higher education institutions are receiving an influx of adult learners returning to the classroom.

The Adult Learner in the Classroom

According to, “20 million Adult Learners have obtained a GED or are seeking a GED to obtain an advanced certificate, associate degree, or baccalaureate degree.” These same adult learners are entering classrooms at community colleges and public and private four-year institutions nationwide. According to the Education Advisory Board (EAB), the profile of an adult learner in today’s classroom is “aged 25 and older, they have spent some time garnering life experience through work, children, and relationships. The desire to return to the classroom is to seek an advanced certificate or degree and enhance their skill set to stay competitive in today’s job market.”

Adult learners seek employment that provides a sustainable wage and a satisfying career with growth and development opportunities. Upscaling workforce credentials can land an adult learner in a rewarding field such as cybersecurity, welding, truck driving or nursing. Institutions of higher learning are tasked with the difficult responsibility of preparing adult learners for workforce reskilling by partnering with community employers, businesses and organizations, especially at the community college level. Adult learners reside at the community college. As a dean at a community college overseeing the adult education program, I am fortunate to witness increasing enrollment among adult learners. I also experience firsthand the challenges adult learners face when returning to the classroom.

Challenges for the Adult Learner

As individuals with varying diverse backgrounds and life experiences, challenges may arise. To quote Jacob Easley II and Monica Williams Shealey in their article “Anti-DEI and the future of Higher Education,” “Diversity among those entering college is veterans, first-generation students, students with disabilities, and an increase of adult learners who face challenges navigating the campus environment.”

Challenges include “adult learners who are English-language learners, adult learners with disabilities, and the lack of classroom accommodations to assist them.” According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 19% of students identify as having a disability. These same students are also adult learners. Many do not receive classroom accommodations or may not know how to ask for them. Furthermore, there are additional barriers with childcare, transportation and a lack of knowledge about wraparound services within the community. All these challenges culminate in adult learners being set up for losses instead of wins.

In addition, adult learners experience barriers to food security, financial support and work/life balance along their pathway to success. With the average adult learner returning to the classroom with some life experience, not knowing how to navigate the challenges above causes stress and anxiety resulting in the learner questioning whether they have a place in a college classroom.

Pathways of Success for the Adult Learner

With transformational change in higher education and an increasing number of adult learners, pathways for success must be established. At my institution, greater outreach between the accessibility and adult education offices was established as a pipeline for adult learners who self-identify as having a disability. Requests for reasonable classroom accommodations such as testing accommodations and assistive technology use such as a note-taking recorder can be made.

In addition, the accessibility office can refer an adult learner who wonder whether they’re a candidate for diagnosis for testing with a licensed professional; moreover, there are employment training accommodations such as options for change in an employee work shift. If institutions of higher learning create outreach pathways for adult learners, they can experience a greater success rate in the classroom. Equally important, colleges and universities should work to connect adult learners to wraparound services within the community that can assist with food insecurity, transportation and childcare barriers. Community agencies such as United Way, food banks, food pantries and city bus services are available to assist students with needs.

Likewise, adult education faculty should build rapport with adult learners early to determine the challenges they face and point them in the direction of community wraparound services. Another pathway to consider is connecting adult learners to financial resources. Adult learners should be knowledgeable about all the financial options available such as financial aid, scholarships and grants; making college more financially accessible is one less burden on the student.

With more and more adult learners experiencing anxiety and stress as nontraditional students, colleges and universities must create safe, inclusive spaces for adult learners that address their mental, physical and emotional well-being. The article “Overcoming Anxiety in Adult Education” articulates how welcoming learning spaces, an understanding of adult learners’ needs, relating to their experiences and connecting them to counseling services are vital to their achievement.

The Future Ahead

Whether supporting English language learners through ESL faculty and curriculums, connecting veterans to an on-campus military ombudsperson, or linking a student with a disability to the disability resource office, adult learners on campus are diverse and need diverse support to succeed. Every college or university stakeholder is responsible for supporting and encouraging every student who steps onto campus.

In a post-COVID world, patience, listening and extending an olive branch of hope ensures students stay on a pathway to successfully obtaining an upscaling credential. The results provide a sustainable wage for personal and professional career growth.

Moreover, creating an inclusive, diverse and equitable college environment for adult learners today produces academically prepared leaders for tomorrow’s competitive job market. It sends the message that adult learners, as all students, know their place is in the classroom.