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Courting the Adult Learner

What adult learners need from traditional colleges and universities.

Higher Education for Adult Learners

What adult learners need from traditional colleges and universities.

Although I have a doctoral degree in education: curriculum and instruction, I decided that I wanted to get an Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. I had two criterion at the start of my search. I wanted a wholly online degree program. I wanted a Massachusetts state school (I am an adjunct professor), because I will would hopefully be eligible for a discount on tuition. A wholly online degree program for a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing is not to be found in Massachusetts. Framingham State University came the closest but there were English requirements that were courses only available during the day and at the university.

I did not think that my quest for an online Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing was unusual, so I started to search in other states. I guess I could pay full tuition. Program after program, I could not find an online MFA in creative writing. There were many reasons that the programs were not wholly online. One of the reasons was that "in-seat" time was required was because of guest lecturers that were famous or successful authors. Fair enough. I guess I would not mind sitting in a class where the guest lecturer was James Patterson or maybe even Bill Clinton (he's a fiction writer, now),

This lack of an online MFA in creative writing led me to do some research on how traditional colleges and universities try to accommodate adult learners. Do they try to accommodate adult learners? If I was a traditional student, I had many options open to me. Many majors, many degree programs. How many people can quit their job to go back to college full time? To be a traditional student? Oh wait. I am too old to be a traditional student.

In the spring of 2013, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) (2015) reported that 19 million traditional students (ages 18-23) enrolled in higher education. Fast forward to the spring of 2017 where NCES (2018) reported 17 million students enrolled. That is roughly a 7 percent decrease. Self-proclaimed higher education futurist Bryan Alexander reported that the trend of declining enrollment in higher education is likely to continue. He cited that this enrollment trend will be effected by a declining birth rate and fewer international and immigrant students. Therefore, many colleges and universities are courting the adult learner to fill their seats. From 2005-2015, NCES (2016) reported a 15 percent increase of adult learners enrolling in higher education than the traditional college student.

Courting Adult Learners. Are traditional colleges and universities ready to meet the needs of the adult learner?

The Academic Report from Kaplan University (2017) illustrated that adults want assistance in overcoming obstacles found in the enrollment of many traditional colleges and universities.

  1. Financial Aid - Adult learners want flexible financial aid policies with assistance in navigating the student loan process
  2. Credit - Adult learners want college level credits awarded from work, life, military, and volunteer experiences.
  3. Support - Adult leaners want support services specifically geared for the adult student. Having been away from higher education for years, if not decades, may create anxiety and fear in many adults.
  4. Roadmap - Adults want their prior transcripts examined and provided with a very specific roadmap for a completed degree program.
  5. Course Availability - Adults are busy. They have jobs. They are raising families. They are helping their own children with homework. They want course availability in multiple formats: weekends, evenings, and online.

It is a symbiotic relationship. Adults want to come back to higher education. Traditional colleges and universities need adult learners. Higher education leaders in traditional colleges and universities need to address these obstacles for adult learners. Their very survival could depend on it.


Kaplan University Academic Report 2016-2017. (2017, Fall). Retrieved June 28, 2018, from

Snyder, T. D., de Brey, C., & Dillow, S. (2016, December 1). Digest of Educational Statistics 2015. Retrieved June 28, 2018, from

Snyder, T. D., & Dillow, S. (2015, May 1). Digest of Educational Statistics 2013. Retrieved June 28, 2018, from

The Condition of Education - Preprimary, Elementary, and Secondary Education - Elementary and Secondary Enrollment - Elementary and Secondary Enrollment - Indicator May (2018). (2018, May 1). Retrieved June 28, 2018, from

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