What Do Adult Learners Need from a College? You Might Be Surprised

adult learners
One of the hardest things about going back to school as an adult is the first thing you have to do: unlearn much of what you thought you knew about how college is "supposed" to work.

For adult learners, higher education has a different purpose than it had when they were younger, with a focus on new and very specific goals. As a result, it's simply not possible to adequately assess a school or program based solely on the qualifications important to an 18-year-old incoming freshman.

Just as important, the education landscape itself has changed dramatically from what it was ten years ago.

Success Metrics for Adult Learners

That means your college search needs to be wider and deeper - a caution that applies both to students and the companies offering education assistance to support them. There are some common building blocks - confirming accreditation and success rate are essential first steps. Beyond that, to be successful, an education program for adults needs think outside traditional education boundaries.

Instead of just cachet, you should be thinking about:

Time to Completion

How fast can an adult learner effectively earn the skills needed without cutting corners? Which schools are going to honor employees' past work experience with credits that will allow them to bypass some of the standard core requirements and get to the end game in a reasonable timeframe?


How do employees want to take classes? Do they have to be live, on campus in a traditional classroom? Do online or hybrid courses make more sense given their work schedules? For even the most ambitious employee, it can be very difficult to manage coursework in an already packed schedule

Relevant Academic Outcomes

How targeted is this program? How effective is it in your particular area of interest? Many programs offer a general degree in business, finance, technology, or healthcare.  But they may not provide the focused, job-relevant skills and acumen needed in your industry today.

Narrowing Down the Options

Once you consider these three criteria, it becomes easier to whittle down the thousands of schools in this country, and focus on the specific institutions that offer programs that will best serve the requirements of your specific population. There are schools that absolutely meet those criteria and provide excellent skills and exactly the programs you need. But you'll never find them if you're limiting yourselves to the campuses on the "brand-name" lists.

People often refer to adult learners as "non-traditional" students.  But as the world of higher-ed continues to evolve - as options such as competency-based education, shortened semesters, and unbundled curriculum become more common to align with what adult-learners need - it may very well be the adult learner who becomes the "traditional" student.

By being able to navigate these different areas, you'll be able to make the best decision about schools.
Bright Horizons
About the Author
Bright Horizons
Bright Horizons
In 1986, our founders saw that child care was an enormous obstacle for working parents. On-site centers became one way we responded to help employees – and organizations -- work better. Today we offer child care, elder care, and help for education and careers -- tools used by more than 1,000 of the world’s top employers and that power many of the world's best brands
adult learners

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