Trends in Adult Learning: A Recent Snapshot

By Aslanian, Carol | The Catalyst, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Trends in Adult Learning: A Recent Snapshot


Aslanian, Carol, The Catalyst


More than 25 years ago, we began investigating the adult learner as an evolving and unique consumer of postsecondary education services. At that time, we were in the vanguard of research on adult learners, who, back then, were only marginally recognized as serious students studying for serious reasons. In 1980, under the auspices of the College Board, we published Americans in Transition: Life Changes as Reasons for Adult Learning, a significant study that, through extensive face to face and telephone interviews with 2,000 Americans aged 25 and older, answered a fundamental question: Why do adults learn when they do?

From that study, we learned what we now accept as common knowledge in the higher education market for adult learners: Adult Americans are propelled to learn by trigger events in their lives primarily professional and the need to gain skills and knowledge to manage their way through life transitions as a result of those trigger events.

In 1988, we took the investigation further, to conduct and publish the first comprehensive study of how adults learn. By that time, adults were heading toward representing half the entire body of college credit students. The gap between the large numbers of adults on college campuses, and the lack of information and understanding about their study patterns, needed to be filled. Again, under the auspices of the College Board, we published How Americans in Transition Study for College Credit, illuminating, in great detail, the way adults participate in undergraduate and graduate credit courses and degree programs.

In 2000, we updated our baseline understanding and added noncredit study patterns to the mix in our publication Adult Students Today. We found that, although two decades had passed from our first investigation, adult students were still learning for the same key reasons: the timing and the motivation for their learning had not changed. Life events in their career lives continued to trigger the demand to learn to gain competencies for career transitions. Where we did see a noticeable difference was in the way adults were learning. The pace of life had quickened over the course of those 20 years, and the societal expectations for individuals to "do it all" created a new demand for learning to fit into the accelerated pace of life. In 2000, adult students wanted shorter course schedules and more opportunities to compress learning to finish degree programs faster and more flexibly. Adults wanted new and convenient locations to take courses, stretching beyond the college's main campus. And the variety of credentials these career oriented, fast tracked, adult students were seeking increased beyond traditional degrees.

Now, in 2006, it was time, again, to look at the patterns of adult learning across American colleges. We began to notice, through our market studies, rapid changes in how adults were studying, particularly in terms of instructional formats and the proliferation of new providers and new locations for study. It is not difficult to identify what happened in the post 2000 world to precipitate this change: simply put, the Internet "happened."

This report offers a snapshot of the way adults are learning today, based on thousands of interviews we have conducted with adult students over the course of the past two years. Unlike the previous publications, this report discusses general trends; the interviews upon which our conclusions are based were part of larger market assessment studies conducted on behalf of client colleges. The students interviewed attended two year and four year colleges, in rural, suburban, and urban settings. They are all undergraduate or graduate students studying for credit. We believe their behavior is representative of the ways in which adult students learn across America.

We expect the trends reported here to stimulate the thinking of college administrators, who are seeking to better understand and serve the needs of the significant numbers of adult learners in their own markets in this continuously changing learning environment. …

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