By 2016, it should come as a surprise to no one that the benefits of a college degree are numerous and long-lasting -- it’s been estimated that by the year 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require some amount of post-secondary education. But there’s a common misconception that if you missed your chance at age 18, that moment has passed you by. Online educators want people to know that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“The average age of university students in the U.S. has continued to increase over the past 10 to 15 years,” says Todd Hitchcock, chief operating officer of Pearson Education. “We’re at a point where, now, the average age of the U.S. university student is just over 27 years old -- and 40 percent of those students attend part-time.”

The flexibility factor

Online learning has become increasingly popular due to the flexibility it allows students, particularly those with obligations outside of their studies. Rather than wasting precious time getting to and from a classroom, students can simply log into their computers and learn. It also tends to be more affordable than going to school at a brick-and-mortar location, because of the lack of overhead costs the college is trying to recoup -- important to note, as a survey by Pearson found that 80 percent of respondents feel that tuition and fees are a major consideration when thinking about pursuing adult education.

While the desire to better one’s career prospects and earning potential is a huge factor in deciding to go back to school, Hitchcock says that a large number of adults going back to school are doing so for fear that their skills will become obsolete in a changing world. Outsourcing used to be a large concern, but now the fear is that the ability to advance in one’s field will outgrow existing qualifications.

“People are realizing now that they need to obtain additional education in order to keep up with advances in the field the next five years,” says Hitchcock.

“‘It is important to note that earning an advanced degree can have a ripple effect on one’s family,’” says Hitchcock.

Beyond coursework

Coursework and a degree are only part of the equation when it comes to obtaining or progressing within a job.

“Core competencies like math and writing and occupational skills are critical, but adults also need to develop their personal and social skills and prepare to transition into a career,” says Leah Jewell, managing director of career development and employability at Pearson.

Planning for and transitioning into a career has changed over the years. Adults need to learn how to build a network, work on their personal brand, and build a portfolio of work while in school, says Jewell.

“With online students, we are able to break down career preparation into nine milestones which provide adults with a manageable roadmap to follow while they are in school, so they are prepared for the job search and interview when they obtain their degree,” she says.

A chain reaction

“It is important to note that earning an advanced degree can have a ripple effect on one’s family,” says Hitchcock.

“What's fascinating to me, and there's been a lot of research on this, is the long tale of education. The probability of that person's child will go to college increases exponentially if they get a degree. Whatever that motivational factor is, be it finance, be it more free time, be it to create a better path for your family -- it's a matter of just taking all the other barriers out of the way.”

The main thing to remember, Hitchcock says, is that dedication and commitment are the two main ingredients needed to make an online education work for most people.

“In general, people drop out or don’t attend college because of other areas that got in their way, outside of the academics. Online learning is able to take all of those down. I really think that pretty much anybody can be successful if they've got the desire to go back.”