We need adult learners as much as they need us. Here’s how to help them

The demand for education that aligns with career advancement is also driving a sizable shift towards shorter, skills-focused programs.
Michelle Westfort
Michelle Westforthttps://www.instride.com/
Michelle Westfort is the chief university officer at InStride, enabling employers to provide career-aligned, debt-free education to their workforces.

Jacqueline begins her day before dawn. A single 38-year-old mother of two, her days are busy and require an artful balance between work at a local retail store and responsibilities at home. Still, Jacqueline harbors a dream that burns bright—a dream of earning a college degree.

Her story is not unique. Across the nation, millions of adults juggle the demands of work and family while hoping to further their education. Despite their eagerness and potential, these working adult learners face formidable barriers: high tuition costs, inflexible course schedules and the daunting prospect of returning to school years after they last took classes.

It is against this backdrop that colleges and universities stand at a crossroads. The traditional model of higher education, with its focus on recent high school graduates, was not created with Jacqueline in mind. Yet, her story presents a compelling call to action.

In recent years, colleges and universities have grappled with significant challenges in maintaining, let alone increasing, student enrollment numbers. Unfortunately, this trend has led to the closure of numerous institutions of higher learning across the country.

Now, these institutions are recalibrating their recruitment strategies to cast a wider net, recognizing the untapped potential of adult learners like Jacqueline. Driven by a desire for career advancement and personal growth, working adults increasingly populate the ranks of freshman classes. This shift presents a prime opportunity for universities to reverse declining enrollment trends.

To bolster enrollments and help working adult learners overcome the obstacles that impede their educational goals, academia and the business sector must take proactive and collaborative action.

Cost and flexibility

A transformation is underway in higher education: a growing and noteworthy segment of the current student population are adults between the ages of 25 to 54, and remarkably, 80% of these individuals are balancing both work and school. To better serve these working adults, universities must revamp their education models.

However, there are unique challenges to recruiting and supporting these students. Traditional educational programs often come with a hefty financial burden and lack the flexibility needed to accommodate the busy schedules of working adults. The good news is that universities and colleges can and have been adapting to make education more accessible and relevant to these learners.

The demand for education that aligns with career advancement is also driving a sizable shift towards shorter, skills-focused programs. Many adult learners favor these programs, which emphasize practical and immediately applicable skills, over traditional, longer degree courses. Yet, despite the proliferation of online programs aimed at providing flexible learning options, many institutions struggle to meet the diverse needs of adult learners, particularly in terms of cost and schedule compatibility.

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Tapping into adult learners

To effectively engage adult learners, universities and colleges are forging partnerships with businesses, creating educational opportunities that directly support workforce development. These collaborations vary from specialized training aligned with industry needs to comprehensive education pathways, benefiting both employees and employers.

Beyond partnerships, it’s important to create accessible entry points or “on-ramps” for adult learners. These on-ramps include preparatory courses and orientation sessions that can ease the transition into higher education, meeting students where they are, even if they lack any prior college experience.

Another model to support the flexibility that working adult students need: stackable programs, which help learners gradually build towards a full degree or advanced qualification by accumulating credits or credentials. These programs empower students to tailor their educational journey to fit their personal and professional schedules, stacking short courses, certificates or micro-credentials. This approach, exemplified by programs like Arizona State University’s stackable microcredentials pilot, supports lifelong learning and career advancement.

Universities have also gained adult learner enrollments from companies with employer tuition assistance because these initiatives, particularly direct-bill programs, remove the financial barrier for working adult students while providing the flexibility they need. Unlike traditional tuition reimbursement models that require upfront payment and a subsequent wait for reimbursement, employer-sponsored tuition through a direct-bill arrangement removes that immediate financial burden. This makes it easier for employees to enroll and is a big win for colleges with strong online program offerings.

Considerations for transfer students

As many adult learners seek to apply credits earned from prior learning, educational institutions should consider the benefit of integrating transfer evaluation and degree audit systems. A transfer evaluation system assesses a student’s credits from prior educational institutions to determine their equivalency at a current or prospective institution, while a degree audit system tracks a student’s academic progress toward completing a degree or certification program. Too often, these separate systems don’t talk to each other. Integrating them into a single system, such as Franklin University’s transfer credit tool or ASU’s MyPath2ASU, provides adult learners with a single resource to understand how their transfer credit is awarded and how long it will take to complete the degree or certificate they are pursuing.

Additionally, colleges and universities should make plans to take advantage of the new Department of Education rule that will prohibit most transcript withholding. The new rule presents a monumental opportunity to attract learners whose credits were previously stranded due to debt or unpaid balances at prior institutions.

Final thoughts on enabling adult learners

Universities dedicated to expanding enrollment are poised to seize this moment. Working adult learners are increasingly looking to pursue higher education, and universities that are prepared to attract and accommodate these learners stand to boost enrollments all while making a major difference in their lives and careers.


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