Skip to main content
Home » College Affordability and Preparedness » Why More Adult Learners Are Opting for Online Education
College Affordability and Preparedness

Why More Adult Learners Are Opting for Online Education

Photo: Courtesy of Wes Hicks

Gene Murray, the VP of business development at Wiley Education Services, explains how online institutions are working to meet the needs of a growing adult learning population.

Gene Murray

Vice President of Business Development, Wiley Education Services

Why does the adult student population have different learning needs from the traditional college student?

Today’s adult population is much different than the traditional 18-year-old student population, and the adult learning population’s needs are particularly focused on gaining the skills needed to advance their career. So historically, an adult learner may get an undergraduate degree and then look for a master’s degree. The challenge is that not every adult learner is looking for a full degree, and this is dependent on things like time and flexibility and the needs they have outside of their work. Today’s learner is focused on trying to find opportunities that match to their specific career path, which is challenging institutions to rethink their models. Increasingly, that on-ground experience or full degree experience doesn’t meet the demands of today’s adult learner.

What are some of these different learning needs?

First is time. Time is probably one of the biggest challenges, speaking from personal experience as someone who is an adult learner and is in the middle of getting an MBA. The work and life environment of many adult learners isn’t conducive to pursuing an incremental credential.

The second biggest challenge is finding programs or credentials that meet the specific need for their career. Adult learners are looking for incremental sets of skills to further advance their career. They need not only time, but to spend that time on learning the right set of skills that will help them meet their career goals.

The third challenge is cost. These learners are spending a lot of time researching the thousands of credentials. Cost and time to completion of the degree are helping the learner determine the correct path for them.

How can institutions better tailor their programs to the adult student population?

Institutions have always had a tremendous amount of subject matter expertise. And they’ve been the go-to institutions for learners to progress. The challenge is for institutions to look at their portfolio of expertise and not to get locked into the traditional track for how they present it to learners within their institution.

Adult learners are looking for prompt information on specializations that align with their goals. Using myself as an example again, I may be looking for business skills, but I have a particular focus on health care. I want to relate those business skills to the environment that I’m in. This is requiring institutions to take more of a strategic portfolio approach to look at all that they offer and create unique paths for adult learners to pursue.

In many cases, that may mean creating something that in the short term meets an immediate need that the adult learner has but that over time can build upon. We’re in an environment today where there is high competition for students in the adult learner market. And those institutions that are focused on catering their knowledge and creating pathways for the students to pursue that knowledge are going to be the ones with the most success. It’s training a level of flexibility that students can come in and out of paths to really pursue lifelong learning.

What are a few new strategies that programs are using to ensure their adult learners receive high-quality education?

Institutions are no longer measuring engagement based off of how well they engage 18 to 22 year olds. The biggest transition is: how do we look at technology and use it to better engage students on their terms? The use of behavioral analytics would be a great example of that. Behavioral analytics are being used to better understand the best way to communicate with students as they first engage with the institution. They’re using that knowledge to create a journey for those students that is not necessarily developed based off how the student wants to be engaged with. These kinds of things are making for a more impactful student experience.

Next article