Today’s college-going population looks considerably different than it did a few decades ago. Students are far more diverse, representing many ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds and even age groups. If you were to peer inside a college class today, there’s a good chance you would see at least a handful of learners who are somewhere between their late twenties and early forties.

Though they’re often called nontraditional students, adult learners are increasingly becoming the norm. A report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) estimates the population of adult students between the ages of 25 and 34 will increase 11 percent between 2015 and 2026. The same report even projects growth among learners who are 35 and older, albeit at a slower pace.

Because adult learners make up such a sizeable portion of today’s overall prospective student pool, it’s essential that colleges prioritize their wants and needs. Students have enough options that they’re unlikely to give any consideration to a program that doesn’t meet their expectations. Before we discuss what those are, it’s important to first gain a better understanding of a typical adult learner.

A look at today’s adult students

The primary characteristic adult students share in common is being older than the typical college attendee. Based on the NCES age groups, any learner who is 25 or older is considered an adult student.

But age alone doesn’t fully capture who these students are. A report from the American Council on Education (ACE) highlights that different organizations have their own definitions of adult students. Still, there are characteristics nearly every source assigns to this type of learner:

  • Working, often more than 30 hours per week
  • Attending school on a part-time basis
  • Raising children
  • Financially independent
  • Often connected to the military

While adult students may have been out of school for years, they have also accumulated knowledge and developed skills that aren’t typical of traditional undergraduates. Consider that some may have already passed a number of college courses. Even those who have yet to complete any postsecondary education have gained valuable life experience.

All of these characteristics play into how adult learners ultimately choose a higher education institution. For them, selecting a school really comes down to meeting several criteria.

6 Elements adult learners look for in a higher education institution

It’s easy to see that adult students have more complicated circumstances than a teenager about to enroll in college immediately upon graduating from high school. School has to accommodate all their other responsibilities, which means they’re only going to attend an institution that has certain features.

1. Affordability

Today’s adult students are incredibly cost-conscious. Remember, they’re often supporting families, paying bills and managing numerous other expenses. And because students are wary of accumulating too much debt, affordable tuition is really a requirement.

These sentiments are certainly reflected in research. One recent adult learner survey from EAB shows that cost is the top barrier preventing students who are interested in continuing their education from doing so. Furthermore, many of these same students say they would decide to pursue a credential if tuition were more affordable.

2. Career-relevant programs

The ability to improve career prospects is by far and away the driving force behind why adult learners consider going back to school in the first place. According to a recent survey that polled more than 1,000 U.S. adults, there are a number of career-related motivations adult students cite:

  • 73 percent want to increase their earning potential
  • 56 percent want to change careers
  • 51 percent want to expand their employment options

But adult students are also realistic. They need assurance that continuing their education will actually help them further their professional lives, so they’re quite careful about choosing an area of study. The job market – roles that pay well, are growing and offer stability — is a good indicator of which degrees students are interested in pursuing. Our recent program analysis shows that students are gravitating toward programs in science and technology, business and healthcare.

3. Flexible options

We already know that most adult students are working while pursuing their degree. Juggling those responsibilities – not to mention spending time with family – can be nearly impossible to manage. Research supports this, showing that most leaners who dropped out of their program say it was too difficult to balance school and employment at the same time.

For working adults, attending a physical class at set times during the week (often in the middle of the workday) simply isn’t feasible. They need to be able to complete course material at a time and location that works for their schedule. This explains why adult learners often consider online programs that are delivered asynchronously – those options allow them to progress in their program when and where they can.

Also consider that adult students may find that certain times of the year are busier than others. The rigid two-semester system may not always be a good fit. Some institutions have responded to this need by offering numerous start times throughout the year.

4. Short time to completion

There’s no question that completing a degree program will require a substantial time investment. That said, adult learners are on the lookout for options that can help them complete their education as fast as possible. One survey of more than 32,000 adult learners reveals students cited the time it takes to complete their education as one of the top factors they consider when choosing a program.

Making a program faster might seem unrealistic, but there are a number of ways colleges can expedite education for adult students. One option is to offer an accelerated format, which covers the same material a traditional program does in a condensed timeline. Some institutions have also begun to use competency-based education models. These programs allow students to progress at their own pace, so adults who already have a solid knowledge base in certain subjects can complete their coursework quickly.

Institutions should also consider whether it’s possible to extend credit for prior learning. Some adult students with previous college credit are likely to have completed relevant courses that don’t transfer easily. Others have substantial experience in the military or workforce that could be applicable to their program. It’s incredibly appealing for those students to be able to compile a portfolio or complete an assessment in lieu of taking courses that simply repeat what they already know.

5. A streamlined application process

While adult students understand it takes a while to go from initial research to enrollment, they approach applying to schools with a much different mindset than their younger counterparts. The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) reports that 36 percent of first-time freshmen apply to seven or more colleges. But only 12 percent of adult learners, the EAB report indicates, apply to seven or more colleges.

The EAB report also shows that adult students are also increasingly moving away from taking graduate admission tests. Given the time and energy it takes to register for, study for and take the exam, it’s no wonder students are skipping this additional hurdle. And they have many test-optional programs to choose from already.

It’s easy to see that adult learners crave a simple, streamlined application process. Requiring students to complete lengthy forms, submit official GRE scores and upload documents from a desktop device do little but create barriers that ultimately prevent students from matriculating.

6. Support services designed for them

While affordability, career-alignment and flexibility are undeniably the most important considerations for adult students, you might be surprised just how much support services can sway an adult learner’s choice of institution.

A report from Higher Ed Insight highlights a number of offerings that schools have developed specifically for adult students, including peer mentor programs, adult-focused orientation sessions and education on public benefits. Even providing low-cost child care can help ensure adult learners not only enroll, but graduate with a degree that can better their lives

Help adult students succeed

What adult students want isn’t as mysterious as it may first seem. Ultimately, they’re looking for options that allow them to balance school with everything else going on in their lives. Think about it as removing any barriers that could otherwise prevent them from applying, enrolling and graduating.

It’s also worth noting that many of the elements adult learners crave are things that all students want in a program. Colleges actually have the opportunity to address many of those desires – flexibility, affordability and accessible support services – through online education. To learn more about how you can ensure your distance offerings meet learners’ expectations, take a look at our infographic “How to Create a Positive Student Experience in an Online Environment.”

Author: Christine Skopec

Christine Skopec is a senior content specialist for Collegis Education. She holds a Master of Science in Journalism from the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University.