by Laura Gilbert

Depending on how you count them, adult learners represent anywhere from 48 to 85 percent of students in postsecondary classrooms. Adult degree completion programs, for-profit specialty schools, expanded community college offerings, and online options make it possible for adults of all ages and interests to return to school. But what is motivating multiple generations of learners back to the classroom? What do these learners hope school will do for them?  The four most common reasons are:


1. Establishing a new career. Some adult learners were “lifers” in jobs that became extinct or were outsourced. Others no longer fit in their old careers (or companies) that experienced radical change. A few chose to be “done” with a first career. These adult learners see higher education as a means to launch their next career.


2. Advancing in a current field. Times are changing, and so are educational requirements for many positions. Experience and good performance may not be enough to compete for promotions. Many adult learners are returning to school to finish an undergraduate degree, earn a coveted certification, or an MBA to boost their knowledge, resume, and chances.


3. Fulfilling a dream or lifetime goal.  Education, like home ownership, is part of the American dream. Increased access, visible role models, and personal encouragement are making that dream a reality. Whether the goal is to be the first in one’s family to set foot on a college campus, to finish a degree started long ago, or to earn a Ph.D. in biochemistry, colleges are eager to help students reach their dreams.


4. Personal enrichment. A growing number of adult learners seek education for purely personal reasons. The educational experience itself is considered worth the cost. Any payback that occurs through increased job opportunity is purely circumstantial. These learners seek to expand their knowledge of a specific topic, stimulate their imaginations or intellect, develop a personal characteristic, skill, or talent, or simply have fun. 


The best program for each learner depends on many factors, starting with the individual’s purpose for seeking education. Whatever the reason, adult learners are here to stay!



Laura Gilbert, Ph.D., author of Back to School for Grownups, is a frequent speaker, consultant, and writer known for her practical guidance and insight on the adult learner experience. Her website, blog, and newsletter include interviews, essays, free resources, and inspirational stories about adult learners. Contact Laura at