Adult learners, sometimes called nontraditional students, have long been a part of the market for higher education, but in recent years the segment has grown in importance. In fact, a 2002 special analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics revealed that there were roughly the same number of nontraditional undergraduate students studying at American colleges and universities as traditional ones and projected that the nontraditional proportion of the segment would increase over the ensuing decade. There are various reasons for this increase – mostly a combination of the broad demographic trend of an aging population base and the increasing complexity and volatility of the economy. Simply put, a greater proportion of the workforce is older and that workforce is constantly in need of more training and retraining to adapt to new needs.

Exact definitions vary, but adult learners are often those college students who are over the age of 25 as opposed to the “traditional” age range of 18 to 24, and are normally part-time students. Of course, that is only the most basic definition. RMS has done a great deal of research for colleges and universities surrounding continuing education and the needs of adult learners, and there are a number of common traits that are shared by many adult learners. Some of the hallmarks of the adult learner population are:

  • They are often trying to balance their education with the demands of a full-time job and/or a family.
  • They are frequently career changers, displaced workers, or military veterans transitioning to civilian life.
  • In many cases they come to an institution with previous college credits earned earlier in life.
  • They are commonly in a position where they have to finance their education on their own, without help from a parent.


There are other common traits as well, but those are four major ones, and all of them shape the way colleges need to adapt to the ways that they serve the market segment. Some very widespread adaptations have been the increase in online programs, “hybrid” programs that combine online and classroom learning, accelerated and flexible class scheduling, and increased availability of part-time programs in general.

Those program- and program delivery-oriented changes are familiar and obvious solutions, but there are some more subtle issues colleges should take into consideration. Traditionally, colleges were built around the needs and lifestyles of young adults in terms of the support services they offer to students. As student populations become more diverse in terms of age — more multi-generational — institutions will need to explore how the needs and expectations of older students differ from those of 18 to 24 year olds. This could touch upon issues ranging from office hours, campus facilities and amenities to the availability of on-campus childcare, just to name a few.

In short, institutions of higher learning are going to need to adapt to older and more age-diverse student populations. Some of those changes will require significant adjustments  in the way colleges market themselves, plan for future growth, and adjust to the needs of the workforce. That may sound daunting, but those institutions that thoroughly and continuously research the needs of their changing student populations and adapt with data-driven decisions should be well-positioned to serve young and old alike.