4 Reasons Adults Are Heading Back to College Right Now
Greater flexibility and opportunity are driving non-traditional enrollment in higher education programs. Here’s how your institution can give them the opportunity to succeed.
Adults going to college, for the first time or for continuing education, are a significant part of the higher education landscape in the United States. More jobs require degrees than ever before, and adults have greater opportunities than ever to get their degrees in non-traditional settings. Up to 40% of students enrolled in post-secondary institutions were contemporary or non-traditional learners in 2018, about 6.6 million students.
Non-traditional college students are those who didn’t take the usual route of going to college directly or shortly after graduating high school. (Taking a “gap year” doesn’t count.) Traditional students are usually about 18 to 23 years old. Non-traditional students have already been in the working world for at least a few years and may have family responsibilities to manage as well. But they are still able to devote time and energy to getting an education. They may also be retirees or veterans looking for a career change. More recently, nontraditional students may include adults taking a sabbatical from their careers to care for aging parents.
Why are these non-traditional students going back to school now? Read on to learn more about this growing recruitment opportunity and what they need from you to succeed.
1. Greater flexibility is appealing
More than ever, colleges and universities are recognizing the market that nontraditional students present and are making efforts to meet their needs. Evening classes, weekend classes and online classes all allow working adults to access education in ways they never could before. Masters programs, including MBAs, have offered “weekend only” programs for working adults for a long time; now, undergraduate offerings are catching up.
Community colleges and universities offering certificate programs in topics like technology and digital skills are also increasingly appealing to older adult college students.
2. Better technology helps make learning easier
Although the COVID-19 pandemic was, in many ways, the final push to online classes, experts have long asserted that online education is just as good and just as effective as traditional, in-person, classroom education. Colleges and universities are offering more online-only and hybrid content than ever. Miss class due to a sick child or unexpected call-in at work? No problem — professors are providing Zoom, WebEx and other recordings to watch when students have the opportunity. Assignments are emailed or uploaded to online portals that allow for easy document sharing and distribution.
3. More financial aid options are opening doors
Not that long ago, scholarships and grants for non-traditional students weren’t all that common. Veterans had access to the G.I. Bill, but most academic scholarships and awards were targeted to competitions among high-performing high school students. The amount of financial aid a student was granted while still in high school often determined their school choice. Scholarships were also targeted to a four-year school completion track and rarely transferrable to another school.
Today, working parents and other adult college students have greater opportunities for financial aid that fits an alternative education plan. Programs may target those interested in specific industries or lines of work. Older students are also eligible for some forms of federal financial assistance, including the Pell Grant program.
Some corporations are willing to provide their employees with financial assistance so they can get higher-level degrees while still working full-time. It’s often in the corporation’s best interest to be able to say they have X number of employees at Y education level, so they are willing to help foot the bill for those costs.
4. Fresh skills are required for the new labor market
The coronavirus pandemic led to high layoff numbers in the United States, especially in service industries that typically require face-to-face interactions. It’s expected that unemployment may remain higher than normal for a long time to come, and people in the hospitality, cruise line, restaurant, hotel and other service industries are looking for new skills for the post-pandemic era.
Web searches for online learning, e-learning, massive online open courses (MOOCs) and similar terms quadrupled between the end of March and early April 2020 as pandemic lockdowns went into effect — and they remained at twice the normal level by the end of April.
Some industries are also “reskilling” their workers and putting a high priority on new economy skills such as Cybersecurity, analytics and data management, programming, cloud computing, and business analysis. Adult workers in the midst of job searches and career changes are looking for ways to learn these skills while being able to stay safe in a changing pandemic landscape.
Build a digital presence that welcomes non-traditional students
Working students, veterans, retirees and other nontraditional students are going to become even greater segments of the higher education population through the coming years. Having the right tools to engage and support them will make any institution more attractive.