Three Reasons Why Adults Continue Their Educations

by Christopher Rich

August 27, 2019

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 percent in the U.S. from 2001 to 2017, reaching 19.7 million. Oregon’s overall enrollment growth was slightly more subdued, gaining 24 percent to reach 230,000. 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 expansion, Oregon enrollment gains (+18%) outpaced U.S. enrollment gains (+16%). And from 2015 to 2017, during continued expansion, Oregon enrollment losses (-3.9%) outpaced U.S. enrollment losses (-0.2%). 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. Then from 2015 to 2017, enrollment for adult learners scaled back while enrollment for traditional age students continued to grow. The decrease came at the undergraduate level: graduate level enrollment continued to inch higher for adult learners and enrollment grew at both levels for traditional age students. Total U.S. enrollment for students younger than 25 reached 13.0 million in 2017, up 1.8 percent from 2015. Total enrollment for students 25 or older slipped to 6.8 million in 2017, down 3.8 percent from 2015. In Oregon, enrollment for traditional students was flat from 2015 to 2017 at 143,800, while enrollment for adult learners fell 9.8 percent to 85,600. Whereas adult learners represented 40 percent of total enrollment at Oregon degree granting institutions in 2007 and 2015, they represented 37 percent in 2017. In the U.S. it was 36 percent in 2007 and 2015, and 34 percent in 2017.

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 2017, 54 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 58 percent and 29 percent, 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 report from the American Association of Community Colleges suggests that potentially 40 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 Introduction to Argentine Tango, Basic Pine Needle Basketry, and Warm Winter Salads.

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.
Jockeys, for instance, are 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, on average from 2015 to 2017, roughly 24 percent 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. Roughly 43 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, 77 percent 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. More than half of all workers in health care support occupations held a license as well from 2015 to 2017. 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. Roughly half of all local government workers held a license from 2015 to 2017. 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 2.5 million adult learners were enrolled as undergraduate students in four-year postsecondary institutions in 2017. There were also more than 2.3 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 811 occupations listed in the Oregon Employment Department’s 2017-2027 Occupational Employment Projections, 267 required a bachelor’s degree or higher as an entry level qualification for employment. Of those, 68 occupations required a master’s degree and 27 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 320 occupations. Candidates with a bachelor’s were competitive for 142 occupations, those with a master’s competitive for 96, and those with a doctoral or professional degree were competitive for 82 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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