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Meet the Multi-Generational Adult Learner

Bob Hansen


With college tuition reaching peak levels and an economy in transition, the competition for higher education enrollments is both more competitive and more unstable than ever. This dynamic is even more acute in the case for adult and nontraditional learners, who now constitute the vast majority of today’s students. This population is extremely diverse. Their life and career goals are different, and age alone cannot adequately define them. Their perceptions about colleges and universities also differ, and they have greater power as consumers. Many are well-networked and skilled in the use of social media. Their needs vary, so relying on just one method of meeting those needs is risky. 

In the late 1990s and at the turn of the Millennium, adult learners were not only Gen Xers, but also Baby Boomers at their peak. The demographics of these adult learners show a higher representation of women who had either started college or achieved an associate’s degree, making degree completion programs via evening and weekend offerings appealing options. As the internet advanced, so did online offerings, adding to the mix.

The modern adult learner 

Today, the adult learner is a multi-generational learner who has different needs, beliefs and choices. He or she may already have a degree and may seek a master’s or technical degree. These learners may already have advanced degrees in a science or engineering field, or have been recently promoted and need a certificate to demonstrate competency in business management. Or, this new generation of learners may not have any college credits at all, but finds career opportunities in developing coding skills via intensive online boot camps. 

The newest demographic of adult learner is 24 years old (at the time of this article) and known as Generation Z, the upper range being born in 1995. They, along with younger Millennials, see greater value in modular learning–earning credentials in smaller units. They are open to new ways to learn, apart from or beyond the bachelor’s or master’s degree. Research shows that this younger adult learner expects to continue learning throughout their lives, as contrasted with other generations who believed that earning a bachelor’s degree was a sufficient terminal degree that carried with it economic guarantees that would last a lifetime.

Another generational learner is the older Millennial. While Millennials are defined as being born between 1981 and 1994, the oldest are now 38 years of age, well into the peak of their careers or in life transitions. Many are seeking flexibility, but also management and leadership training to advance to the next level.

Updating credentials

Those who earned their degrees in the early part of the 1990s or 1980s may be looking for a certificate to freshen up their areas of expertise. Others may be seeking degrees, badges or certificates that open new career paths, including new jobs created through automation, changes in retail, growth in the healthcare field or through advances in technology. These learners may seek out opportunities offered at various colleges or universities, either in an online or face-to-face classroom environment, or through a fully online provider offering programs in Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) formats.

So what is the best way to meet the challenges of the multi-generational learner and serve the new nontraditional student? A well-diversified, comprehensive approach is key. New modalities, coupled with micro-credentials and outcomes-based degrees and certificates are not just ideas – they are critical to meeting the needs of today’s learner. 

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