Four Emerging Trends in Adult Higher Education


By: Carol Aslanian Sep 15, 2016

Emerging Trends in Higher Education

With the president’s 2020 challenge and recent research estimates indicating that by 2018 U.S. employers will require 22 million additional workers with degrees, more Americans are – and will be – heading back to school. After more than 30 years of higher education market research and hundreds of studies for colleges and universities throughout the country, I’ve begun to see four trends emerging in adult (post-traditional) education:

  1. Adults 45 years of age and older are the least educated
  2. Young adults 25-29 years of age are going back to school sooner
  3. Prospective students are seeking a graduate education in larger numbers
  4. Tuition reimbursement not widely known or used

Let’s examine these four emerging trends in more details and discuss some ways your institution can help meet the needs of this growing demographic.  

Read the Coming Around Again eBook to Learn How to Find and Enroll Adult Students

Adults 45 years of age and older are the least educated

The life expectancy has increased and so has the number of older workers.

U.S. Census Bureau
Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Though, older workers are staying on the job, adults 45+ have the lowest percentage of associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
To advance in a current job, transition into a new career or just remain competitive in the modern job market, many adults 45 years of age and older will need higher education.
In addition, my research suggests that older adults may be seeking higher education for non-career related reasons as well – wanting to complete a degree they started years earlier to achieve a personal goal or for their own edification and enjoyment.

What you can do:

To best attract older adults, you should clearly and consistently communicate that you are aware of and sensitive to older students’ needs, and you should offer online and hybrid options in addition to classroom-based programs, as well as flexible scheduling and shorter term and program lengths.      

Young adults 25-29 years of age are going back to school

Prospective Graduate Student

In several recent client studies, a surprising trend surfaced:  a significant portion of the local population of recent adult learners fell within the 25-29 year-old age range – a departure from the stereotypical profile of an adult student as someone in their mid-30’s. 

In fact, in one study, half of the recent learners were 25-29 years of age. This tells us that younger adults are realizing earlier than they historically have that they need more skills and credentials if they are to have a sustainable career.

What you can do:

In addition to offering a wide variety of scheduling and format options, you will be best served by encouraging young adults to pursue a degree or finish a program they once started by reinforcing the statistical reality that they need to get an education now so that they can enjoy long-term career success into the future.

Read the Coming Around Again eBook to Learn How to Find and Enroll Adult Students

More prospective students are seeking a graduate education

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows enrollment in graduate education consistently increasing both in real attendance and projected enrollment.

Graduate School Enrollments -
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Spring 2001 through Spring 2015, Fall Enrollment component; and Enrollment in Degree-Granting Institutions Projection Model, 1980 through 2025. SeeDigest of Education Statistics 2015, table 303.80.

However, while interest in graduate education is expected to grow, there may be an even more dramatic increase as workers discover that to be most competitive, they’ll need more than an undergraduate degree, which is nearly the “new normal.”
As we become more educated as a nation and as our jobs require it, an advanced education will be necessary to remain viable and skilled in the fields we enter and progress in.

What you can do:

You should promote the availability of your offerings, as well as their value in the changing landscape. For motivated prospective students, achieving graduate education sooner rather than later will better position them for promotions and career transitions.
Additionally, if you’re able to establish and/or grow your post-baccalaureate education offerings now, your institution will be poised to take advantage of the future influx of graduate students that will be entering the market in the years to come. 

Tuition reimbursement benefits are not known or used

Finances can often be the hurdle standing in the way of prospective students getting the higher education they desire.
While many have a resource that they are unaware of, such as employer provided tuition reimbursement benefits,  the current state of the economy might lead some to believe that this is a declining benefit.
In a recent EducationDynamics study of 100 blue chip New York-area firms found that more than 80 percent were still offering funding for classes. About 90 percent of the employers with tuition assistance programs reported covering undergraduate courses and programs and 97 percent offered benefits toward graduate courses and programs.

What you can do:

Identify companies in your community that have tuition reimbursement benefits and seek strategic partnerships to provide higher education opportunities to their employees. In addition to working directly with companies with tuition assistance programs, you should reach out to employees to let them know what funding may be available to them.

Moving toward opportunity

Graduate School Marketing

The current climate in higher education can be a win-win for students and schools alike.
Students can gain the education they need to create secure and successful careers, and colleges and universities can reposition to most effectively serve them.
After all, competition is a part of our national identity and just as students are flocking to classrooms across the country to become more competitive in the workforce, colleges and universities need to design targeted marketing plans to remain equally competitive in the marketplace.