- Private colleges have turned to adult learners in recent years to boost degree completion, combat enrollment declines, and aid local workforce development.
- Adult learners bring a unique need for flexibility to the table, as many have to work toward their degrees while balancing jobs and family.
- Drexel University and Peirce College, both in Philadelphia, recently partnered to better serve adult learners, echoing other national partnerships.
As cities face worker shortages in high-demand areas and colleges look to combat enrollment declines that were ongoing even before the pandemic, private universities are increasingly partnering to engage with a historically underserved group of students: adult learners.
Adult learners, who don’t fit the traditional age range of college students and often already have careers and families, bring a unique set of needs to the table in higher education.
Adult learners often require more flexibility to pursue their degree on their own schedule. And with the acceleration of online and asynchronous learning since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools are now more broadly equipped to engage with these students.
Retraining and upskilling were priorities for people ages 25 and up who quit their jobs and found new employment between May 2021 and May 2022 as part of the “Great Resignation,” a Cengage Group survey found earlier this year.
Low pay and a lack of advancement opportunities spurred workers to look for new employment en masse, and many who found new jobs told Cengage that upskilling and reskilling were important to them.
That increasing demand among prospective students for new skills — coupled with all levels of government scrambling to fill open positions in key industries like cybersecurity, sustainability, and infrastructure — has some private colleges increasingly looking to adult learners to fill those gaps.
Drexel University and the adult-learner-focused Peirce College announced a partnership in May to help adult learners transition to careers in fast-growing industries in Philadelphia. Healthcare and “technology-driven medical research” are at the forefront of that partnership, which will feature several pilot programs to help students work toward a degree.
The partnership will include a Peirce-Drexel pathway program that will allow adult learners — who want to pursue an online Drexel bachelor’s degree but have less than 24 college credits — to first pursue an online associate degree with the option for industry-specific certifications before transferring to Drexel.
“This program aims to remove the barriers that prevent many adults from completing their degree, enrolling at colleges and universities and acquiring the credentials and advanced skills needed to secure in-demand, well-paying jobs,” Drexel President John Fry said in the May press release. “This collaboration reflects our shared commitment to promote inclusive economic growth in service to the Philadelphia community.”
The collaboration between Peirce, a college that has long focused on adult learners, and Drexel, a school that has typically focused on research and traditional undergraduate programs, leverages both schools’ strengths, Mary Ellen Caro, president and CEO of Peirce, said in the release.
“This effort leverages Peirce’s mission of serving adult students and underrepresented, nontraditional students along with Drexel’s expertise in creating experiential learning opportunities and career-focused programs to expand access to quality education for adults in the Philadelphia region,” Caro said. “We believe it will result in accelerating innovation and economic recovery in our region.”
The partnership between Drexel and Peirce echoes a new national university system launched last year to engage adult learners. Antioch and Otterbein universities are pooling their resources, while still maintaining their individual brands, to share adult learner and graduate programs.
The adult-learner-focused national system launched by Otterbein, a traditionally undergraduate-focused school, and Antioch, which focuses on adult learners, aims to help schools curb costs while also providing adult learners with key access to more degree programs.
Otterbein and Antioch also want to pitch the value of a liberal arts education to adult learners. The value of a liberal arts degree increases over time, leading to a high return on investment as graduates’ careers advance, a Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce ranking previously found.
“If it doesn’t stack into a degree program, when that person wants to change industries, when that person wants a promotion, when they become a manager, eventually that well-roundedness will matter,” Otterbein President John Comerford previously said.
“And so I think through this Antioch partnership and the system we’re creating, we can do the short-term certificates, but we need to make sure that those adult learners can apply that later on toward degrees.”
Many adult learners already have made progress toward a degree that they never finished, and schools have looked to engage those “stopped-out” students in recent years to complete their degrees.
Georgetown University launched an online degree completion program featuring a full online, asynchronous format geared toward adult learners. The high-power university partnered with the online education platform Coursera to offer the program.
“We’re at a moment now where we’re continuing to see many different kinds of models offering this flexible format, and we’re seeing the relationship between the flexibility and workforce preparation,” Georgetown School of Continuing Studies Dean Kelly Otter told BestColleges at the time. “And so this really allows us to give a quality program in a very innovative way.”
Like Otterbein and Antioch, Georgetown officials highlighted the importance of a liberal arts education in launching that program.
Re-engaging stopped-out students has been an increasingly important agenda item across higher education in recent years, with institutions from local community colleges to elite universities like Georgetown reaching out to adult learners in a bid to help them finish their degrees.
The number of stopped-out students across the country was already massive even in the early days of the pandemic, with the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center estimating that there were more than 39 million stopped-out students nationwide as of July 2020.
Getting those students to finish their education serves to both boost student career prospects and earning potential, help combat ongoing enrollment woes across higher education, and address local workforce needs.
Those efforts have taken many forms, from private colleges embracing adult learners and offering asynchronous learning to public and community colleges investing millions to help students finish their degrees. The University of California, for example, designated more than $4.85 million in state funding last year to help students finish their degrees or get a certificate.