Adult Learning

Advance your career and your knowledge

The typical college student is no longer under 20 years old and fresh out of high school. The classrooms of today's colleges are likely to hold an increasing number of older, nontraditional students. Adult learners, with family obligations as well as life and work experiences beyond the classroom, are changing the demographics and dynamics of higher education.

A student is considered "nontraditional" if he or she is:

  • Employed, or considered financially independent
  • A parent or single parent
  • Older than a typical high school graduate

The factors that make a student nontraditional may work as either advantages or disadvantages. Many older students return to college with severe doubtful about their academic abilities, but are surprised by their success. With the maturity to organize tasks and to complete assignments, adult learners often blossom upon finding themselves in a supportive and engaging educational environment.

Choosing to Return to School

After an educational gap, nontraditional students return to college for a variety of reasons. Some choose the path of adult learning education as a response to a crisis; others seek to learn for learning's sake.

Reasons for returning to school include:

  • Brushing up on workforce skills after a job loss
  • Training for career advancement or career change
  • To get back on track after taking time out to raise children
  • A need to become economically independent after death or divorce
  • To network and make friends or contacts
  • For personal enrichment, to reinvigorate life by taking on new challenges

Fitting School into Life

It takes determination to succeed academically while meeting life's other obligations. Students who work or have child-care responsibilities may have trouble scheduling classes. They may choose to attend part time, or may take evening or online courses.

Some colleges tailor degree programs specifically for adult learners, offering accelerated courses that minimize the time spent on campus. Adult learning programs may require evening meeting times lasting several hours once or twice a week, or may have distance education components.

Nontraditional students bring in experiences from beyond the classroom, so their college expectations differ from those of younger students. Adult learners are likely to expect higher education coursework to hold career relevance. They become engrossed with practical subjects with the potential to enhance future workforce success, but may dislike courses without obvious relevance to their working lives, thus colleges seeking to attract nontraditional students tend to emphasize career training. Community colleges, in particular, are often friendly environments for nontraditional, returning adult students.

Adult Learning Styles

A nontraditional student may face complicating factors that impact academic success. For instance, he or she may be:

  • A non-native speaker of the English language
  • Affected by physical disabilities or learning disabilities
  • May have earned a GED instead of a standard high school diploma

Depending upon the support systems available, it is possible to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and achieve academic success. Many colleges operate "learning centers" which offer help in subjects such as math or writing, free tutoring in English, or accommodations for students with an adult learning disability.

For students whose learning style makes it difficult to follow printed textbooks, the college's learning center may offer checkout of items such as tape recorders or audio textbooks. Laptop computers, customized for student accessibility needs, may also be available. Other students may benefit from having tests read aloud or translated.

Academic Success

While it may be tough to make the choice to return to college, the number of nontraditional students is growing, and their expectations are changing the environment of higher education. By returning to the classroom, adult learners are gaining opportunities for life and career enhancement, as well as new challenges to overcome. Academic success is possible and even likely, for the motivated adult learner.

By Pamela Baum