4 Things to Know about Adult Learners for Enrollment Success


As earning a degree becomes more and more critical to landing a secure job, adult learners are projected to increase their enrollment at colleges and universities. By 2022, EAB predicts that enrollment of students aged 25 to 34 will increase by over 20%.

Adult learners over the age of 25 are a significant demographic that institutions serve, making up 38% of the total undergraduate student population in the US. Thus, to be truly student-centered, higher education institutions must understand and accommodate the needs and objectives of adult learners.

After six years and millions of data points collected from interactions between stopout students and ReUp’s Success Coaches, including feedback regarding Covid’s impacts on students’ learning, ReUp has gained key insights into how adult learners differ from “traditional” students. Given our expertise, here are the top 4 things higher education leaders need to know about increasing adult learner enrollment.

Adult learners who have stopped out want to return

One of the most common misconceptions about students who have stopped out of school is that they are incapable of or uninterested in continuing their courses. In reality, 89% of students who have taken a break from school express an interest in returning.

This drive of stopout students to return indicates an enormous potential for institutions’ enrollment strategies, considering that there are 36 million American students with some college and no degree. But while this is a considerable population, their needs and goals are largely misunderstood or unknown. With a solid understanding of the barriers that adult learners who have stopped out face, colleges and universities can open up vast new opportunities for re-enrollment success.

ReUp’s analysis of hundreds of thousands of stopout student interactions has shown that students take a break from their studies not because they are unmotivated or incapable but because life got in the way. With just a bit of motivation and support in balancing priorities, we have found that stopout learners are willing and able to return.

ReUp Success Coaches support students to successfully balance their life commitments with school and plan a pathway to degree completion. Our coaches, many with the experience of being stopout students themselves, have found that learners need guidance towards the right strategies and resources. Ultimately, by capturing students’ desire to return and channeling it towards action and re-enrollment, ReUp has re-enrolled over 16,000 stopout students since 2015.

Virtual learning presents an opportunity to engage busy students

The increased prevalence of remote learning resulting from the pandemic has meant greater flexibility for many students, especially adult learners. The reason online learning may better accommodate adult learners is that they have more going on in their lives, notably work and family obligations. With certain aspects of their courses online — especially when this includes flexible attendance — adult learners are better able to balance school with everything else.

It is important to note that fully online options can disadvantage adult learners as well. Stopout students are more likely than the average student to lack consistent access to technology or reliable online access. Thus, hybrid models that give learners more flexibility on when and how they access classes, resources, and support can often be more accessible for this population than fully online modalities.

According to an analysis of ReUp students’ preferences, a large majority (75%) prefer either entirely online or hybrid modalities. However, a significant number of learners (21%) are unsure, further highlighting that flexible structures may best accommodate students whose obligations may vary over the course of the year.

ReUp students’ preferred modalities

Therefore, a student-centered enrollment strategy must consider that online options can offer adult learners the chance to return and stay in school despite their non-academic obligations.

The ReUp Network, comprising 20 college and university partners, gives our population of learners access to a wide range of academic options. This collaborative network widens the opportunities for students to find the modalities that best fit their needs and capacities. Furthermore, through a partnership with Acadeum, some of our partners have access to a vast network of online courses that can support students in finding suitable topics for their careers.

When adult learners are ready and motivated to enroll, they persist

This past spring, enrollment rates of all ages declined to some degree due to barriers created by Covid. However, not all age groups’ enrollment rates declined to the same degree: adult learners left school at consistently lower rates than younger learners at every type of institution, including community colleges and both private and public universities.

Of the many explanations for higher persistence rates, one is that adult learners may have a clearer outlook on how they will be able to use their degrees. In a job market that is more competitive than ever, adult learners see an increased need for job credentials. Many older students come (back) to education with a sense of urgency because they have gained professional experience but need a degree in order to overcome a wage ceiling.

Additionally, adult learners are under more pressure than “traditional” students to ensure that their tuition payments serve their future success. Furthermore, because their schedules tend to be busy, they are also wary of wasting time on a program that doesn’t suit their needs. Consequently, once engaged, adult learners may be more likely to stay enrolled after they have decided on the right program for them.

Therefore, it is important for higher education institutions to clearly communicate the return on investment that students can receive as a result of earning their degrees.

Attracting and serving adult learners also means aligning academic programming with employer demands. According to a study by Public Agenda, 70% of adult learners say that learning skills and knowledge that will apply to their post-graduation job opportunities is necessary when choosing where to enroll.

ReUp has observed this consistency in enrollment for the adult learners we work with. On average, over 60% of ReUp’s re-enrolled students retain to the next term.

ReUp supports student retention by working with them to define their re-enrollment’s return on investment. Success Coaches work with students to match their goals with the options available to them at their original institutions. If their original institution is no longer a good fit due to changed circumstances or objectives, coaches help them find their best-fit institution within our network.

Additionally, coaches stay with students from their very first point of contact all the way through to graduation. This sustained support provides accountability and consistent encouragement, which is especially important especially for first-generation students.

Adult learners need more support than “traditional” students to balance life and school

Adult learners tend to be handling at least one other commitment in addition to their studies. For example, 25% are raising children, and 58% work while enrolled in college. For this reason, adult learners are more engaged by tailored messaging that recognizes that their academics will have to fit in alongside other obligations. Older learners are also more likely than younger ones to need extra support to balance their priorities.

Colleges’ and universities’ communications and support staff are often focused on recruiting first-time, full-time students. As a result, student outreach strategy often takes for granted the support systems these incoming students have for enrollment, such as high school counseling staff. However, this engagement strategy does not work for adult students. Instead, this population usually gets their information about colleges from friends or family, targeted advertisements, and direct communication with higher education institutions. Adult learners also need more involved engagement; on average, we have found that an adult learner requires 40+ communication touchpoints before deciding to attend or return to an institution.

Additional support is also particularly helpful to adult learners who often simply lack the time to plan re-enrollment. Many older students are first-generation and lower-income, and therefore may lack the support systems to help them navigate and stay in higher ed settings. In a study of higher ed institutions receiving grants to engage adult learners, over 70% of institutions found that providing additional enrollment assistance services was key to getting prospective adult learners to enroll.

See Selena’s story below to see how ReUp’s support
allowed her to balance her priorities and return to school.

Coaching is an essential way of helping adult learners understand their competitive advantage. Coaches can show a student the value of combining their existing skills and a degree. Additionally, they can help students overcome barriers that stand between them and re-enrollment.

With the millions of data points ReUp has collected on stopout students, we have gained an understanding of the unique needs of adult learners. We have also built expertise on what messages resonate best with them. In our outreach to stopout students, we use language that is tailored to their circumstances, such as an institution’s return on investment, career options, and other supportive messaging. We also leverage our technology-based engagement platform to manage and analyze student interactions, allowing us to constantly improve our service. As a result of our data-driven messaging, we have engaged tens of thousands of students since 2015.

Engage and re-enroll your adult learner population

With these insights on adult learners, you have the keys to unlocking enrollment growth and recapturing millions in tuition revenue. However, the knowledge of how to better serve adult learners does not necessarily translate to effective practice.

ReUp’s years of experience with interacting and supporting adult learners who have stopped out make us an ideal partner in tapping into your institution’s population of adult learners.

At ReUp, we have the technology, data, and personalized coaching that can most effectively meet stopout students where they are in life. We work with students to build a realistic and effective plan for re-enrollment and retention and guide them on their path to graduation. As a result, we have succeeded in re-enrolling students and recapturing over $50 million in tuition revenue for our partners.

To talk with us about how ReUp can help you support and re-enroll your adult learner population, connect with us today!