Three Reasons Why Adults Continue Their Educations

by Christopher Rich

March 10, 2021

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 students age 25 or older. These students are also known as nontraditional in comparison with the traditional age of postsecondary students (18 to 24 years old). Enrollment at postsecondary institutions and population increase share a loosely correlated long-term trend. As the population continues to increase, enrollment at postsecondary institutions also continues to increase. Data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) reveals that overall student enrollment at degree granting institutions grew roughly 32% in the U.S. from 2001 to 2019, reaching 19.6 million. Oregon’s overall enrollment growth was slightly more subdued, gaining 24% to reach 226,000. Shorter-term enrollment trends appear more varied, however, and less tied to population increase. From 2007 to 2015, during the recession, the recovery, and the first half of the expansion, Oregon enrollment gains (+24.8%) outpaced U.S. enrollment gains (+16.7%). Then, from 2015 to 2019 during the second half of the expansion, Oregon enrollment decreased (-4.9%) while U.S. enrollment continued to increase (+0.3%) These short-term trends highlight that population increase is not the only variable pushing college enrollment; economic opportunities and age also push enrollment.
When the economy is cold and unemployment is high, adults are pushed toward education to strengthen their skillsets or reskill and change careers. When the economy is hot and unemployment is low, there is less motivation to change careers, and less motivation to strengthen skillsets; adults are pushed away from education. This can be seen at the undergraduate level. From 2007 to 2015, U.S. degree granting institutions saw large enrollment gains in both the traditional and nontraditional age groups at both the undergraduate and the graduate levels. However, enrollment for part time undergraduate adult learners began to scale back in 2009 and enrollment for full time undergraduate adult learners began to scale back in 2015. While graduate level enrollments continued to increase through 2019 for adult learners, undergraduate enrollments continued to decrease.

Meanwhile, enrollment for traditional age students continued to grow. Total U.S. enrollment for students younger than 25 reached 13.0 million in 2019, up 3.4% from 2015. Total enrollment for students 25 or older slipped to 6.5 million in 2019, down 5.1% from 2015. In Oregon, enrollment for traditional students was up 0.6% from 2015 to 2019 at 144,000, while enrollment for adult learners fell 13.1% to 81,500. Whereas adult learners represented 39.5% of total enrollment at Oregon degree granting institutions in 2015, they represented 36.1% in 2019. In the U.S. it was 35.2% in 2015 and 33.3% in 2019.

Adults Go to School for Personal Enrichment

Adult learners are more apt to face challenges that younger students often don’t contend with, such as balancing school life with supporting a family. 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 play a large role in attendance status. In Oregon in 2019, 55.4% of postsecondary students 25 or older attended school part time compared with just 29.9% of students younger than 25. In the U.S., this was 58.4% and 29.4%, respectively.

Not all students enrolled in postsecondary education are seeking a degree, however. According to data from the Pew Research Center, three-fourths of adults are personal learners. This also plays a large role in attendance status. 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 don’t 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 Pew 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 2020 report from the American Association of Community Colleges suggests that 47% 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 period than full credit classes. Central Oregon Community College for instance offers a number of classes in the Enrichment/Special Interest category. Classes such as Human Nature: A Horse’s Perspective, Drip Irrigation Basics, and All-Star Summer Picnic Sides.

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 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, for them continuing adult education is a work requirement.

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.
Jockey room supervisors, for instance, have no prerequisite education or experience requirements and there is no continuing education requirement for the Oregon Racing Commission’s (ORC) three-year license renewal. On the other hand, racetrack veterinarians must maintain an ORC license along with an Oregon Veterinary Examining Board license, which requires graduation from a veterinary college or veterinary department of a university or college, an internship, passage of a licensing exam, and 30 hours of continuing education coursework every two years.

On average from 2017 to 2019 in Oregon, 23.6% of workers age 16 or older held a license to work in a specific occupation. The highest percentage of private-sector license holders was in the education and health services industry. Nearly 44.0% 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, 76.1% of workers held a license during the period. This group of occupations includes physicians, surgeons, nurses, pharmacists, occupational therapists, paramedics, and numerous other health care occupations with a license requirement. Almost half of all workers in health care support occupations held a license as well from 2017 to 2019. 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.  

The highest percentage of public-sector license holders was in local government, with 43.0% holding a license from 2017 to 2019. 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.

Slightly less than 2.4 million adult learners were enrolled as undergraduate students in four-year postsecondary institutions in 2019. In Oregon, there were 22,900. There were also more than 2.3 million graduate students 25 years or older enrolled in four-year institutions. In Oregon, there were 26,000. 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 791 occupations listed in the Oregon Employment Department’s 2019-2029 Occupational Employment Projections, 258 required a bachelor’s degree or higher as an entry level qualification for employment. Of those, 67 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 316 occupations. Candidates with a bachelor’s were competitive for 142 occupations, those with a master’s competitive for 93, 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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