Who is the Adult Learner?

Posted: October 28, 2020

Matt Walters Chief Services Officer

Read time: 9 minutes

Data shows that more than 2 out of 3 college students today are not coming straight out of high school. 

In turn, the adult learner has become the muse of many-a marketing strategy throughout academe. The blanket definition for an “adult learner” is a college student who is older than the 18-22 year age bracket. In other words, they are literally everyone else. Targeting this amorphous segment in the social distancing era can feel like nailing jello to a wall. 

History has proven that over-generalizations of people often lead to misperceptions. In other words, stereotypes. In the context of your brand and enrollment marketing, chasing stereotypes can lead to misguided media mixes, off-target messaging, comm flow gaps, and squandered resources.

You can’t (afford to) target what you can’t clearly see. 

In this month’s edition of EduInsights, we have assembled a panel of our top higher ed experts to better illuminate this rapidly emerging and increasingly critical audience. What follows are their first-hand insights, drawn from years of working on both sides of the agency / institutional relationship and serving on the front lines of enrollment marketing teams at institutions of higher learning: 

Who is the Adult Learner, what do they care about, and what are they looking to get out of their college experience? 

Brandi Stoker, Director of Research & Analytics
13 years in enrollment, admissions, and student success for four universities

Adult learners are non-traditional aged students who are either 1) returning to college after taking time off, or 2) are starting their college career at a later time than is typical, often after already starting a career, a family, or other life pursuits. 

An important subset is the graduate student. These students have already earned an undergraduate college degree and usually have a clearer sense of what they want to do professionally. They often need a graduate degree to move ahead in their chosen field. Given that many are working full time, flexibility is a priority. They often prefer online degree programs or some type of hybrid option with some online and some on-campus courses. Cost is also important to them because they are often paying back undergraduate loans and are loathe to take on more debt.

Another subset are military students. After starting their career in service, they often pursue a college degree in preparation for leaving the military or for promotion within the military. Because they can be stationed and re-stationed every couple years, they too seek the flexibility offered by online degree programs. 

Adult learners value support. Oftentimes, they have been out of school (whether it is high school or college) for more than five years. They have questions, and often some doubts, about their ability to perform in the classroom, or their ability to fit a college schedule on top of their adult responsibilities. If they’re in an online degree program, they still want to feel engaged in some kind of college experience and they are receptive to a college environment where someone is supporting them actively at each step. 

They have questions, and often some doubts, about their ability to perform in the classroom, or their ability to fit a college schedule on top of their adult responsibilities.

Because most adult learners have families and varying levels of employment, they value flexibility. They want options for online classes, evening classes, and so forth, because they often work all day or care for young children. 

Josh Dodson, VP of Innovation
13 years in digital marketing and data analytics for Southern New Hampshire University, Eastern Kentucky University, and Bentley College

While people across the spectrum of “Adult Learners” often do value many of the same things, it is important to consider how greatly their circumstances vary. 

Some took gap years and are now wanting to go to college for the first time. Others have some college experience and are returning to school to finish their degree. Many have found that they can’t get the job they want without a college degree. They have gone as far as they can in their current role, and are looking for a promotion or a complete career change. 

And many others – you can’t overlook this – are driven by a less tangible but equally powerful motivation to accomplish that college education. The Adult Learners we’ve spoken to have been almost universally driven by a nagging sense that they are somehow failing to reach their full potential if they don’t accomplish that college degree. That’s a powerful motivator.

That motivation drives Adult Learners to work incredibly hard. While they often require asynchronous, online classes, and different flexibility and support than institutions are built to provide more traditional students, that doesn’t mean that they’re not willing to put in the effort and work required to do a great job. They want a real degree and will do what it takes to earn that degree. They just need schools to provide them with options for how to earn it. 

The Adult Learners we’ve spoken to have been almost universally driven by a nagging sense that they are somehow failing to reach their full potential if they don’t accomplish that college degree.

The term adult learner sounds like an overgeneralization. When we talk about adult learners, what common misperceptions should higher ed institutions re-think?

Dana Cruikshank, Director of Strategic Partnerships
7 years in marketing and communications for Virginia Tech

One major misconception is that adult learners are under-qualified. That is, they don’t have at least an associate or bachelor’s degree yet. In reality, many adults who are interested in going back to college may already have a degree and are now looking for specific skills or certifications to advance their careers. 

Find the largest community college in a given state, for example, and there’s a good chance they are the largest ‘graduate school’ in their state as well. They are educating more people that already have bachelor’s degrees than any other institution, including a big public flagship that has legions of graduate students. 

These learners want short-term engagements that may account for few credit hours in the short term, but they’re also more likely to return in subsequent years to keep upskilling. 

Find the largest community college in a given state, for example, and there’s a good chance they are the largest ‘graduate school’ in their state as well.

Josh Dodson, VP of Innovation

The path to professional development for the adult learner calls for a different model of learning than the model that suits traditional age students. 

The pedagogical models that many are used to must be replaced with andragogical models that account for the experience that adults learners bring to the table. They aren’t working from a “clean slate.” Malcolm Knowles’ model of andragody (adult learning), for example, includes distinct assumptions that are very different than what you would expect with pedagogical assumptions. 

This includes:

  • A self-concept that is self-directed, not dependent — They have to want to do it and are ready to take the next step.
  • Drawing on a reservoir of experience — Adult students are not coming to school with a blank slate. They already have a wealth of experience that they are bringing with them. We need to recognize this and allow them to use it in their work.
  • Readiness related to the developmental task of one’s social role — How will education allow them to take the next step in their career or social role? When they are ready to take the next step, it is important to showcase how an institution can help.
  • Problem-centered, not subject-centered — Theory is nice and everything, but adult students are interested in learning things that they can use to solve real problems. How can you connect the education to situations that they deal with every day?
  • Internally motivated — Adult students know why they need to take the next educational steps that they are taking. We’re not creating the motivation for them–we’re simply connecting their self-motivation with what additional education can offer them.
  • A need to know why  — Knowledge may be beneficial for its own sake, but for most adult students, they want to know how the knowledge will benefit them and connect to other things that they know. They need to be exposed to the why before jumping into the what or how.

Institutions need to ensure that they are accounting for these needs/assumptions.

Brandi Stoker, Director of Research & Analytics

Despite their need for online learning options, we shouldn’t assume they are as tech savvy as their traditional aged counterparts. Many adult learners have never taken an online class before, and are not equipped with the knowledge to feel immediately comfortable in a LMS like Blackboard or Canvas. The potential misperception is that adult students should have just as easy a time acclimating to the college experience.

Also, to build on Josh’s point above, colleges shouldn’t assume that because an adult learner is squeezing college into an already busy life that they want to be less engaged in their college career. They’re not in it just to earn a degree. They’re often deeply interested in the enrichment of the college experience itself. 

How does COVID impact adult learners’ decisions to go back to college, particularly the prospective adult student considering college at this point in time? 

Josh Dodson, VP of Innovation

Layoffs or reduced compensation means adult learners may need to return to school to expand their skills and general employability. Colleges and universities that have gone online with their classes have, in many cases, made it easier for the adult learner to take classes. Since many traditional age students have opted to postpone taking classes, some adult learners may find it easier to get accepted into the programs in which they want to enroll. They have more options than they might have otherwise had. 

Brandi Stoker, Director of Research & Analytics

Beyond employment instability, many are struggling with either being at home all with children who suddenly need something akin to homeschooling, or finding childcare. Many adult learners without a college degree typically work in the service industry, which has been greatly impacted by COVID. They may be dealing with unemployment for the first time, and have placed their college career on hold to address the priority issues that surround them.

In response, institutions really need to be thinking about tangible ways to help ease students back and accommodate some of these very real barriers to entry?

We don’t just need better messaging – we need substantive, tangible changes that we can then emphasize in our messaging because they’re truly helpful to the adult student. 

Dana Cruikshank, Director of Strategic Partnerships

The relationship that adult learners have with higher education has changed in the COVID era. According to data from the Strada education network, adults 24 to 44 years old who don’t have a degree, but want more education, are now much less likely to consider pursuing one as a worthwhile investment. 

Their convictions have also changed. The studies now show the number one goal in returning to school is the need to provide for their families — a far-cry from last year, where the same audience contended that the sense of personal fulfillment and achievement was among their top priorities.

Adults 24 to 44 years old who don’t have a degree, but want more education, are now much less likely to consider pursuing one.

The Road Ahead

Like the year 2020 itself, the adult learner is rapidly evolving. Who they were yesterday is not who they are today. 

The value of understanding this audience goes way beyond smarter campaign strategies and well-positioned content.

It’s time to re-think everything with the adult learner in mind.

Institutional cultures were built to serve traditional students. It’s not enough to pay lip service to a brand promise geared toward adult learners. As competition intensifies leading up to the 2025 demographic cliff, the schools that are willing to go the distance and deliver on that promise — from admissions and financial aid to learning models and student success initiatives — are going to attract and enroll more of these students.

And they’re going to serve those students better — which is just the right thing to do.

VisionPoint Marketing has extensive experience helping higher ed institutions use integrated marketing strategies and next-level data insights to drive enrollment among adult learners. If you have questions or want to start a conversation about how we can help – especially in terms of any of the tactical recommendations in this article – please visit our website or reach out to our team. We’re on a mission to help higher ed institutions succeed.