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Adult Learners in Higher Education: Barriers to Success and Strategies to Improve Results

Brian Bosworth, Abigail Callahan, Vickie Choitz, Chris Davidson, John Hoops, Richard Kazis, and Annie McLeod

This report synthesizes the research literature on the challenges facing adult learners in higher education today and on emerging strategies for increasing the number of adults over 24 who earn college credentials and degrees. The synthesis is meant to provide perspectives on key issues facing adult learners and the institutions that serve them.

Powerful economic, demographic, and market trends are reshaping the landscape of higher education, particularly for adults. A key finding is that traditional higher education programs and policies—created in an era when the 18- to 22-year-old, dependent, full-time student coming right out of high school was seen as the core market for higher education—are not well designed for the needs of adult learners, most of whom are “employees who study” rather than “students who work.”

The report identifies the primary obstacles that adult learners face in trying to earn credentials with labor market value. It reviews the research on innovative practices that address the particular constraints facing adult learners. And it recommends changes in institutional and governmental policies that might help more adults enroll in, persist in, and complete higher education credential programs.

The report was prepared for the U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration, Office of Policy Development and Research by Jobs for the Future, in collaboration with Eduventures and FutureWorks.