Three Reasons Why Adults Continue Their Educations

by Christopher Rich

May 8, 2018

I wanted nothing more to do with formal education when I finished high school. When I was in my mid-twenties, however, I found myself enrolled from time to time in a class at the local community college. This was either for personal enrichment, such as taking a theatre class because I wanted to be in the current drama production, or to meet a job requirement, such as taking a CPR recertification class in order to continue teaching preschool. Years down the road I eventually found myself enrolled in university full time. Married, with a daughter, and with considerable life experience under my belt, I was motivated to pursue a degree that would qualify me for a career in something I am passionate about: economics. While I’d like to think of myself as a trend setter, the reality is that adults have been continuing their educations post high school for a long time. I was just one of several million adult learners in the United States at the time I pursued my degree.  

Adult Learners Are Not Your Traditional Students

Adult learners are generally classified as students age 25 or older. These students are also commonly referred to as nontraditional in comparison to the traditional age of postsecondary students (18 to 24 years old). As the population of the United States has continued to increase, enrollment at postsecondary institutions has also continued to increase. Data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) reveals that overall student enrollment grew from 14.8 million in 2001 to 20.2 million in 2015, a gain of 37 percent. Growth in overall enrollment in Oregon was slightly more subdued. Enrollment reached 243,000 in 2015, a gain of 30 percent since 2001.

Enrollment for adult learners has grown at a slower pace when compared with overall enrollment and when compared with enrollment for students younger than age 25. From 2001 to 2015, the number of students 25 years or older enrolled at postsecondary institutions in the U.S. grew from 5.8 million to 7.4 million, a gain of 26 percent. The number of students under the age of 25 grew to 13 million over the same period, a gain of 39 percent. In Oregon, the story is similar. Adult enrollment grew 25 percent for the period to reach just over 97,000, whereas enrollment for students younger than 25 grew 34 percent to reach 146,000. Adult learners represented 40 percent of total enrollment at Oregon’s postsecondary institutions in 2015 and 36 percent of total enrollment in the U.S.

Adult learners are more apt to face challenges that many younger students don’t contend with, such as balancing school life with work and family life. Adult learners are more likely to be married and have children, more likely to be financially independent, and more likely to work while attending school. These factors likely help drive the difference in attendance status between adult learners and students younger than 25. In Oregon in 2015, 52 percent of postsecondary students 25 or older attended school part time compared with just 28 percent of students younger than 25. In the U.S., this was 57 percent and 28 percent, respectively. Less than full-time enrollment status may not be a concern for many adults though. Not all students enrolled in postsecondary education are seeking a degree.

Adults Go to School for Personal Enrichment

According to data from the Pew Research Center, three-fourths of adults are personal learners. People in this group often engage in learning activities simply to learn more about something they find interesting. This could be something they enjoy doing or something they know very little about. Many adult learners who enroll in a class at a community college do not expect to earn a certificate, a degree, or a qualification. They take a class for personal enrichment and simply hope to come away with an enhanced understanding of the subject. The study states, “80 percent of personal learners say they pursued knowledge in an area of personal interest because they wanted to learn something that would help them make their life more interesting and full.”

A report from the American Association of Community Colleges suggests that potentially 41 percent of enrollment in community colleges is for noncredit classes. Community colleges offer a host of noncredit and low credit classes designed for personal enrichment. These classes are generally low cost and take place over a shorter time frame than full credit classes. Central Oregon Community College for instance offers a number of classes in the Enrichment/Special Interest category. Classes such as Advanced Fly Fishing and Casting Techniques for the Deschutes River, Unmanned Aerial Systems, and Lunch and Learn in Sisters.

Adults Go to School to Fulfill a Job Requirement

Adults often continue their educations due to job requirements. The study from the Pew Research Center suggests that one-third of workers either take a class or pursue extra training annually, “in order to get a license or certification they need for a job.” This figure includes all age groups, occupations, and training environments including on the job and online training. For this group, the motivator is directly tied to an occupation. Although many of these people likely find satisfaction in cultivating knowledge about, and honing skills required to perform their jobs, continuing adult education is a work requirement for them.

Many Oregon occupations have a certificate or license requirement. These certificates and licenses also commonly have a continuing education component that requires the holder to obtain a certain amount of continuing education credits prior to renewal, in order to maintain or improve job skills. The State of Oregon maintains a certification/license directory on the website: Business Xpress License Directory. This directory lists certificates and licenses required for occupations in Oregon, along with fees, renewal periods, experience and education requirements, and any continuing education requirements.
Jockeys might be required to “demonstrate the ability to control a horse and to ride in two or more races before a license is issued.” However, there is no continuing education requirement for the two-year license renewal. On the other hand, naturopathic physicians must meet extensive education, experience, and exam prerequisites in order to obtain their licenses. In addition, they must maintain “50 hours (of) continuing education each year, of which 10 must be in pharmacology and 2 in ethics,” in order for the annual license renewal.

In Oregon, roughly 24 percent of workers over the age of 16 held a license that pertained to their job in 2015 and 2016. In the private sector, the highest percentage of license holders was in education and health services. Roughly 44 percent of workers in this industry held a license during the period. The majority of these workers are likely found in health care. In the broad occupational group, health care practitioners and technical occupations, 80 percent of workers held a license for the period. This group of occupations includes physicians, surgeons, nurses, pharmacists, occupational therapists, paramedics, and numerous other health care occupations with a license requirement. More than half of all workers in health care support occupations held a license as well in 2015 and 2016. A license to work in a health care related occupation often requires continuing education in order to stay current on the latest procedures and practices.

In the public sector, the highest percentage of license holders was in local government. Half of all local government workers held a license in 2015 and 2016. This is likely driven by employment in primary and secondary schools. Elementary, middle school, and high school teachers must hold a license and meet professional development standards of continuing education in order for license renewal. There are also many nonteaching licenses required for jobs in education such as bus driver, counselor, and social worker.
Adults Go to School to Earn a Degree

For some adult learners, taking classes helps maintain skills for a job they currently have. For others, taking classes can improve job skills or develop new ones that provide advancement, or open the door for a job opportunity. And for some adult learners, the door to opportunity lies in earning a degree.

More than 2.5 million undergraduate adult learners were enrolled in four-year postsecondary institutions in 2015. There were also more than 2.2 million graduate students 25 years or older enrolled in four-year institutions. The majority of students in this group are likely pursuing degrees. For many occupations a bachelor’s degree is a minimum qualification, with an advanced degree offering the job candidate a more competitive edge in the job market.

Of the 805 occupations listed in the Oregon Employment Department’s 2014-2024 Occupational Employment Projections, 264 required a bachelor’s degree or higher as an entry level qualification for employment. Of those, 68 occupations required a master’s degree and 26 required a doctoral or professional degree. But there’s a stark difference between being qualified and being competitive. Overall, a candidate with a bachelor’s degree or higher was listed as being competitive for 318 occupations. Candidates with a bachelor’s were competitive for 142 occupations, those with a master’s competitive for 95, and those with a doctoral or professional degree were competitive for 81 occupations.
Adults Just Continue to Learn

The number of adults who continue their educations post high school is relatively large. Adult learners seek education for personal enrichment, to meet a job requirement, and to open the door to more opportunity. These reasons are often interconnected and likely bring satisfaction for the learner even if that’s not the primary purpose.

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