Student-centric advice and objective recommendations
Higher education has never been more confusing or expensive. Our goal is to help you navigate the very big decisions related to higher ed with objective information and expert advice. Each piece of content on the site is original, based on extensive research, and reviewed by multiple editors, including a subject matter expert. This ensures that all of our content is up-to-date, useful, accurate, and thorough.
Our reviews and recommendations are based on extensive research, testing, and feedback. We may receive commission from links on our website, but that doesn’t affect our editors’ opinions. Our marketing partners don’t review, approve or endorse our editorial content. It’s accurate to the best of our knowledge when posted. You can find a complete list of our partners here.
Who is Considered an Adult Learner?
Not everyone attends college fresh out of high school. These days, a lot of students wait until later in life to pursue higher education. These students are known as adult learners. In this guide, we’ll talk about who adult learners are, what they want out of college, and what to do if you’re thinking of becoming one.
Who are adult learners?
Adult learners are students aged 25 and older. They’re also known as nontraditional students because they don’t fit the mold of typical 18 to 22 year-old college students. But despite being labeled “nontraditional”, adult learners are actually quite common. According to recent data, adults make up about 35% of the college population.
Many adult learners have kids, full-time jobs, or both. They also have varying levels of prior experience with college. Some may have started college in their earlier years, but never earned a degree. Others may have already earned a degree and are working toward their second or third. Some have no prior experience with higher education.
What do they want out of college?
Adult learners pursue higher education for a variety of reasons:
1. To launch a new career
Many adult learners go to college to expand their career prospects. They may be unsatisfied with their current job and want to transition into a more lucrative and rewarding career. Some are forced to try something new after their old jobs became automated or outsourced. Others go back to school after retiring and finding out they actually still want to work.
2. To stay competitive in their field
Many experienced professionals return to school to update their skills and keep up with technological advances. For instance, a software developer may go back to school to learn new coding languages. Others want to earn new credentials and move up within their field. A Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), for example, may continue their education to become a Registered Nurse (RN).
Related: Top certificates to earn
3. To fulfill a lifelong goal
Some adult learners may have started college in their earlier years, but never finished due to family obligations, career opportunities, or military service. For those who had to put their education on hold, going back and earning a degree can be very rewarding.
4. To keep learning
Some people have an intellectual curiosity that can never be satisfied. That’s why some adults return to school simply for the sake of learning. These folks are lifelong learners in the truest sense.
How to succeed as an adult learner
Returning to school (or going for the first time) as an adult can be a daunting task. You may not be sure where to begin, but that’s okay. We’ve put together some tips to help get you on the right track:
1. Assess your goals
If you’re thinking about becoming an adult learner, the first step is to determine your goals. What are you hoping to gain out of your education? What type of degree do you need? How much time are you willing to commit? These are questions to ask yourself during the initial planning process. From there, you can determine the type of program you’d like to attend.
2. Find a flexible program
Adult learners usually have a lot of responsibilities to juggle. Going to school while supporting a family and working full-time is challenging, so it’s important to find a program that accommodates your lifestyle. Online and hybrid programs are both great for adult learners managing a busy schedule. There are also schools that offer open-entry and early-exit courses, which allow students to complete lessons at their own pace. Some schools even offer on-campus childcare for students who are parents. Make sure to find a program that suits your particular needs.
3. Apply for scholarships and financial aid
One of the biggest challenges for adult learners is funding their education. According to a recent survey, 60% of adults have considered returning to college but worry about financial barriers. Fortunately, there are a variety of scholarships for adult learners and nontraditional students. There are also scholarships available at the local level. If you plan to attend a local college or trade school, make sure to explore the scholarships offered at those institutions. In addition to applying for scholarships, fill out the FAFSA to see if you qualify for financial aid. Also, check into whether you qualify for the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP). The CLEP program offers students the opportunity to use their existing knowledge to earn college credits.
See also: Easiest to hardest CLEP exams
4. Develop a time management plan
Once you’re accepted into a program, put together a plan for how you’ll manage your time. Creating a detailed time budget will help you determine when you can fit in study time between other obligations. This plan will be especially useful during the early stages of your program when you’re still transitioning.
5. Create a support system
Adult learning can be challenging, but it’s easier when you have a network of people supporting you. Talk to your family and make sure they’re on board with your educational goals. Having their support will mean a lot. You should also meet with your professors and program coordinators. They’ll do everything they can to help you succeed if they know you’re balancing a busy schedule. And don’t be afraid to rely on your peers for support, either. Forming study groups and making friends with your fellow students can make the process a whole lot easier.
Everyone’s path is different. If you’re seeking a “nontraditional” route to higher education, don’t let the potential challenges stand in your way. Joining the adult learning community is one of the best things you can do to improve your quality of life. Good luck on your journey!