Adult Learners


Adult Learners

Although adult learners are often assumed to be rarities on college campuses, adults have always been an important part of the student body. And as the job market increasingly demands workers with more postsecondary training and America faces the results of a “baby bust” starting in 2008, adult students have become crucial players in improving the economy and keeping colleges financially viable. 

Although adult learners are often assumed to be rarities on college campuses, adults have always been an important part of the student body. And as the job market increasingly demands workers with more postsecondary training and America faces the results of a “baby bust” starting in 2008, adult students have become crucial players in improving the economy and keeping colleges financially viable. 

Unfortunately for journalists, there’s no official definition of an “adult” student. But the U.S. Department of Education considers any student over the age of 24 as “independent” for financial aid purposes. And the department breaks out statistics for those 25 and over in its age grouping tables in its Integrated Postsecondary Educational Data System (IPEDS). As of 2019, those over the age of 24 comprised 6.5 million students, about a quarter of all undergraduates and three-quarters of graduate students.

While the Department of Education expects the number of “traditional” aged students to stay flat between 2018-2028, it expects the number of college students over the age of 24 to rise by 1.2 million to 7.7 million during the same period.

But many people think the definition of adult student should be broader. The federal financial aid program also considers as independent those who may be under 25 but are veterans and/or parents. 

And the adult-learning scholar Carol E. Kasworm has suggested that the definition of an adult student should center on their financial independence, commitments to family and work, and a personal identity “that is not predominantly anchored in the role of a college student.” This broader definition is sometimes also referred to as “non-traditional” or “post-traditional” or “today’s” students. 

However you define them, adult students are a very diverse group, including displaced workers trying to prepare for a new career, employees taking advantage of tuition assistance programs, people returning to college to finish a credential, and those who took years — or decades — to decide to start college.

While it’s generally believed that most adult students enroll or return to college to improve their career prospects, many are also motivated by personal considerations, what the historian David Scobey has called “a journey of personal growth, a way of laying claim to their lives.” 

And this group is fertile ground for fresh and important coverage. As the makeup of the student body changes and more adults enroll, government programs and campuses will have to adapt. 

Among the fruitful areas for journalists exploring this topic are efforts to change “traditional” campuses or educational programs to better serve adults by, for example, expanding financial aid eligibility, making class schedules more convenient, improving services such as child care, and — who knows — maybe even taking the radical step of providing more affordable parking spaces. (More story ideas are listed below.)

To help you cover this increasingly important part of higher education, check out the following modules, which provide important background on adult learners, as well as resources, data and links to research. 


Data/Resources: Adult Students

The following organizations, resources, and reports offer useful information and sources for reporting on the issues affecting adult students.  


History and Background

Colleges have seen the need to educate adult learners for over a century. 

In the U.S., the mass effort of providing post-secondary education to adults started with the land grant public college movement in 1862, and was accelerated by the rise of community colleges in the early 20th Century.


Adults at College: 8 Great Story Ideas

  1. Financial aid: Many states and colleges have rules (such as age limits, early application deadlines or minimum credit requirements) that reduce the amount of grants available to adults. Are your community’s or college’s rules friendly to adults? Check them by asking financial aid departments at local schools what their age-related policies are.


Following are some of the terms that come up in reporting on adult students.

Andragogy- (as distinct from pedagogy) a theory of adult education, first popularized in the United States by the academic Malcolm Knowles, that calls for recognizing the different motivations older students bring to learning, and reflecting that in teaching that is problem-centered, relevant, and cognizant of their experience. 

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Top 10 Most-Read EWA Blogs of 2021
Journalist members wrote practical resources to help their fellow reporters all year long.

Supporting our talented journalist members is one of the best parts of my job here at the Education Writers Association.

Many of them have written insightful, well-researched and, yes, educational blog posts over the course of the year. And several took time from full-time reporting jobs to write these resources – all with the purpose of helping their fellow journalists do their jobs.

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These New Education Books Make Perfect Gifts. (Trust Us.)
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Shopping for the education writer in your life this holiday season? Any reporter can tell you which is the best seat in the school board meeting room: It’s the one near the only working wall outlet. While this popular version of a portable battery pack will set you back about $50, it’s reliable, durable, and speedy. (No, EWA does not do paid product endorsements. I actually use this.) It also has the benefit of being cable free if your gift recipient uses a compatible smartphone.

Sponsor Webinar: Data Tool Explores If Colleges Boost Alumni Paychecks

Sponsor Webinar: Data Tool Explores If Colleges Boost Alumni Paychecks

What makes a college “good”?

Providing stellar educations and career opportunities to a select few? Or creating lots of opportunities for all kinds of people, and helping disadvantaged students get into careers that can sustain families?

Reporters who want answers can use a new free data tool that helps identify whether colleges are opening the doors of socioeconomic mobility and promoting equity in education.

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Frederick shared this insight during a virtual panel at the Education Writers Association’s 2021 Higher Education Seminar on Oct. 19. Moderated by Francie Diep with The Chronicle of Higher Education, three university officials discussed the legal, political and health care forces at work in the fight against COVID-19 on campus.

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Reporters can find fresh angles and new information to help borrowers by pursuing accountability stories, and by paying particular attention to debt repayment, forgiveness and collections of overdue balances, three veteran reporters said at the Education Writers Association’s 2021 Higher Education Seminar.

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From COVID-19 relief funding to massive endowments, money – which institutions have it, which don’t and how it is spent – will be key themes in higher education stories over the next year.

That’s the prediction Inside Higher Ed Editor Scott Jaschik gave during his session on “The Top 10 Higher Education Stories You’ll Be Covering This Year” at the Education Writers Association’s Higher Education Seminar in October.           

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Tips for covering state and federal policies, enrollment declines, campus challenges and more

University leaders hope to take advantage of a potentially historic influx of federal funding, re-engage students who left during the pandemic and stave off longer-term enrollment drops. 

They face these challenges amid bitter fights over mask and vaccine mandates, and political polarization over affirmative action, freedom of speech and allegations of “cancel culture.” 

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Covering Critical Race Theory: Resources and Tips to Debunk Misinformation
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This story was updated on Sept. 23, 2021. 

After a more than 40-year-old graduate-level, academic research framework became the center of a national culture war that began last year, misinformation and disinformation infiltrated the public sphere, and internet searches increased.

In 2019, Nexis listed a total of 635 news articles mentioning “critical race theory.” Today, the phrase is cited in more than 5,000 pieces a month. And the vast majority of those stories focus on how history and race are taught in schools.

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How are hands-on job training programs being affected by the coronavirus pandemic?

What kind of virtual job training works?

Students and teachers described what is, and isn’t, helping students get practical job skills during a December 12 session at the Education Writers Association’s “Pathways to Good Jobs: Higher Ed’s Changing Role in Social Mobility” seminar. 

The participants were: 

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Journalists learned about data on segregation at college campuses as well as efforts to break down racial barriers during a December 11 session at the Education Writers Association’s “Pathways to Good Jobs: Higher Ed’s Changing Role in Upward Mobility” seminar.