What do adult students want from college?

The demographics of higher learning are changing, but traditional colleges have been slow to adapt. An adult learner-focused ranking hopes to help prompt change. 

Gretchen Ertl/AP/File
Members of the New England College of Business graduating class of 2014 receive their diplomas. On Monday, Washington Monthly released the first-ever college ranking geared toward adult students.

Each year, legions of adult learners – that is, students who are 25 years old or older – take a first or second chance at higher education. This growing demographic tends to be ambitious, capable, and eager to learn. But until now, there was no large-scale ranking of colleges that cater to the group.

On Monday, Washington Monthly released the first-ever list of best colleges for adult learners. The ranking considers factors such as ease of transfer, tuition cost, and program flexibility. According to these metrics, the top schools tend to be smaller public universities, rather than big-name private colleges.

More than 40 percent of Americans enrolled in colleges are adult learners. Nevertheless, they're often considered "nontraditional" students, with many colleges and universities just starting to consider their diverse needs, and how they differ from the 18-21 year-old crowd.

Frequently, however, online and for-profit colleges jumping into the gap with flexible programs aimed at part-time students and working parents have met with mixed results. Several such schools have come under fire, and even indictment, for issuing empty degrees and for encouraging students to take on predatory loans. Washington Monthly's rankings not only offer adult learners a way to vet schools they might be considering attending, but could also elevate the needs older students in the eyes of traditional colleges.

“I would argue that adult learners are the single most under-served group in higher education, both by their sheer numbers and their importance to the economy in this country,” Paul Glastris, the editor in chief of Washington Monthly, says in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

Many adult learners have never attended a higher learning institution before, and enroll in hope of job advancement. Others had brief stints at colleges but didn’t graduate – college enrollment numbers have gone up, even as graduation rates stagnate or fall. Across the nation, the six-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time students at four-year institutions is just 60 percent. 

“The [enrollment] numbers have been growing steadily for quite a few years, and are predicted to continue growing,” Mr. Glastris says. “The value of a post-secondary credential has become more and more apparent – it’s virtually a requirement for a shot at a middle-class wage.”

Adult learners are eager to get their degrees, Glastris says, but they want to earn them on their own terms. Many of these students have families and work full-time jobs.

One of my biggest challenges has been trying to manage everything. Being a single mom is hard, but it is even harder when I add being a student, teacher, and the head of the household,” said Maria Cochran, an education major at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., in an article on the school's adult learning initiatives. Calvin ranks fifth in Washington Monthly's overall rankings for bachelor degree-granting programs at national universities. 

Ms. Cochran talked about the importance of connecting with other students like her at dedicated adult learner lunches, “people who have busy lives outside of school, but are still motivated to continue with their goals.”

Students like Cochran also tend to want flexible class schedules – evening, weekend, and online classes so they can graduate in a reasonable time frame – and credit for previous experience, whether they earned it inside or outside the classroom. Returning students want an easy way to transfer their previously-earned credits. Some have already worked in their chosen field of study, and want credit for their on-the-job knowledge. A seasoned bookkeeper, for example, may deserve a chance to test out of Accounting 101, Glastris suggests. 

Adaptations like that often go overlooked at colleges that just aren’t in the business of educating adults, however. "Traditional" institutions typically require SAT or ACT scores for admission, and focus on the stereotypical, adolescent-oriented images of what college meant: not just classes, but living in a dorm, being immersed in clubs and sports, and taking the first steps away from home. Their degrees are earned five days a week through four year programs and come with hefty price tags, putting a so-called traditional experience further out of reach for many adult learners. 

At Park University, a private non-profit college in Missouri, 78 percent of students are adult learners. The college offers up to 75 hours of transfer credits from two-year schools, as well as online classes and reduced pricing for military personnel. It earned the number three spot on Washington Monthly’s list, the only private institution in the top five.

“We’re very proud of our liberal arts core, but the adult learner isn’t wanting or ready to come back and study philosophy or English or history,” Doug Fiore, the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Park University, tells the Monitor in a phone interview. “They really want to get into a curriculum that helps them secure a job.”

As both Dr. Fiore and Glastris point out, adult learners tend to be well-motivated, and positioned to make good use of their degrees. 

“You have this highly motivated, highly capable population that could be bringing in more income for their families, rising in their careers and adding value to the economy,” Glastris says. “But only if we can figure out better ways to make higher education more affordable for them.”

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