The National Center for Education Statistics estimates the population of students 25 and older will number 10 million and represent 43 percent of the entire college population by 2021. Between 2011 and 2021, the NCES projects a 14 percent increase in enrollments for students over 25, which outpaces students under 25 by a percentage point over the same time period.

When I was a VP of student affairs and enrollment management at an institution that served almost exclusively adult learners, one of the most difficult challenges we faced was how to recruit and retain the burgeoning adult learner population. Those discussions made one thing clear: If your institution is not already implementing recruitment strategies for this pool of potential students, it should be.

To identify and recruit any group, you first have to have a strong understanding of the specific demographic. You must identify who they are and what they desire from their college experience.

The population of students 25 and older will number 10 million and represent 43 percent of the entire college population by 2021.

Who are adult learners?

The answer to this question is not as straightforward as it may seem. An “adult learner” can be defined as someone between the ages of 20–34 who is enrolled in undergraduate or graduate school. But adult learners are not exclusively defined by age. Young parents, under 20 years old, may also meet the definition of an adult learner.

Regardless of age, it’s a population that is growing — and, for some segments, growing rapidly.

Between 2000 and 2012, the enrollment rate for 20–24-year-olds across America increased from 32 to 40 percent, according to the NCES. Students 25–29 years old increased from 11 to 14 percent over the same time period and students ages 30–34 increased less than a percentage point.

But there’s more to it than ages and growth rates.

One of the sometimes overlooked characteristics of adult learners is that they are at a different stage in life than traditional students. Perhaps their top priority is caring for an elderly parent or sick child; maybe they are feeling pressure at work or from their spouses. All of these challenges can impact how much and how deeply adult learners invest in their college experience.

Understanding the adult learner mindset

Adult learners are selective and self-directed. They want to take responsibility for their own learning and may not fully understand the importance of academic advising. They also may not be interested in social gatherings or networking events outside of making progress toward a degree.

Once adult learners have made the decision to start their college coursework or, return to complete their degree, they want to finish the process quickly. Higher education institutions are much more likely to attract this segment of the student pool if they remove unnecessary barriers or hurdles that will delay progress.

Certain segments of the adult learner population may not have had a positive experience in higher education in the past, so making them feel welcome and confident is essential to success. Adult learners vote with their feet! If their needs are met, they will stay engaged. If not, they’ll check out.

How adult learners approach higher education

Adult learners are interested in practical solutions and current applications. They tend to be pragmatic and prefer active and experiential learning. Adult learners may engage less with faculty who discuss foundational philosophies or wax theoretically unless those discussions and theories framed directly to their experience. In fact, we used to receive countless email complaints from students upset that their faculty member did not make class long enough or did not engage them in the learning process.

Adult learners want to own their learning experience and development. They learn better when content reflects life experiences or enables them to apply what they’ve learned or discuss how their experiences relate to course content. The educational experience at my former institution consistently achieved the highest ratings for student satisfaction, largely because 75 percent of the faculty were adjunct instructors who were also practitioners in their subject.

Adult learners need to clearly understand the relevance of the subject matter — the what, why and how of a subject is important to them and their aspirations — before they buy into the content. They are also very interested in how learning outcomes will be assessed.

The last word

Many adult learners are returning to complete something they started and may not have a positive memory of their last formal education experience. They want their experience and knowledge to be respected and valued. If appropriate, awarding prior learning assessment (PLA) credit or enabling them to move quickly or skip material they already know can be highly validating and motivating.

These students want to be treated as colleagues and resist if they believe information is being forced on them or they do not have an opportunity to think critically about what is being presented. Life is the filter through which they will see, hear and interpret their learning.

Check out the second installment of the adult learner series here: Understanding Adult Learners: What You Need to Know to Recruit & Retain Them.”