Start Here: Essential Terms to Know to Support Adult Learners


Are you up to speed on key terms for serving returning and adult learners? Brush up on essential definitions around academic policies, advising, financial aid, and more with ReUp’s glossary.

The demographics of college students are shifting at a “blink and you might miss it” kind of pace. According to NCES projections, by 2029, the majority of college enrollments will be comprised of adult students aged 25 and over. Adult learners, stopout students, and returning students have all grown to encompass a significant portion of the college population – yet traditional education systems are not always built with their needs in mind.

As administrators and higher education leaders focused on student support, retention, and completion, it is essential that we understand the unique needs and priorities of adult learners in order to serve them effectively. Having a solid grasp on the terminology, programs, and best practices related to adult learner support will allow us to:

Better assist adult students in navigating college policies, procedures, and systems

Provide tailored advising, coaching, and support resources to address common adult learner challenges

Develop enrollment management strategies that focus on adult learner recruitment and retention

Make informed decisions on adult-focused academic programs, student services, and administrative processes

In addition, understanding key terms and concepts used in the field of adult learner support can help higher education leaders work to create more inclusive, equity-minded, and student-centered institutions. This glossary serves as a starting point to build knowledge around serving this growing and important student demographic.



Academic Renewal

Also referred to as Academic Forgiveness, an academic renewal policy that allows students who have previously experienced academic difficulty to petition their college or university for a “fresh start” with respect to their cumulative GPA. This process typically requires a student to retake their previously failed courses and be awarded a better grade in order to replace the poor grade on their transcript.

Academic Momentum

The idea that once a student has made progress in education, that individual is more likely to continue their learning journey. It’s often associated with the concept of “momentum of success” which suggests that when one succeeds in an academic task it sets them up for future successes.

Adult Learner

An individual who has either returned to school after taking time off or is attending for the first time at age 25 or older. Adult learners often have family, work, military, and other personal responsibilities that can affect their ability to complete courses and earn a degree. Adult learners can be engaging in either traditional higher-education courses, certificate programs, or other forms of continuing professional development (CPD).

Adult Learner Support Services

Specialized resources available at postsecondary institutions that provide assistance to adult learners and other non-traditional students. Support services typically include academic advising, tutoring, mentorship, career guidance, counseling services, and more. These services are different from a ReUp Success Coach‘s work, in that a Success Coach works alongside traditional support services, offering personalized guidance to address barriers beyond academics, such as work/life balance and other personal commitments.

Competency-based Learning

Education programs designed around the acquisition of specific skills and abilities, as opposed to traditional course credit hours or semester structures. Competency-based learning is often seen as a more flexible option for adult learner support, since it can accommodate students with different skill levels and paces of learning.

Contemporary Students

A term most notably used by George Mason University to describe any of the following: adult learners 25 years or older, off-campus students that commute, transfer students, married/widowed/divorced students, veteran or military-affiliated students, stopped out students that have left for three or more years, pregnant or parenting students, or students that have previously experienced the foster care system.

Credit Recovery

A process by which students retake courses that they have previously failed or withdrawn from in order to earn credit and progress within their program. Credit recovery typically requires students to retake the entire course, with some schools offering a “credit by exam” option as an alternative.

Degree Audit

A report that provides an overview of the student’s progress in their degree program and identifies any remaining course requirements needed for completion. In reference to adult learners, it’s important to recognize that credits may have been earned at several institutions. This tool can be used as a resource to help students plan ahead and stay on track with their academic goals.

Drop/Add Period

The drop/add period is the designated time frame in which students can add or drop classes without receiving a financial penalty. During this period, students also have the opportunity to adjust their course load and switch to different classes if they need to.

First Credential

When students earn their first ever undergraduate credential after re-enrolling, either in their first or second year.

Life Experience Credit

Life experience credit, or a work/life credit, is a form of academic recognition that acknowledges experience, specialized knowledge, or skills acquired outside of the classroom. This type of credit is typically assessed through portfolio review, test-out exams, prior learning assessments, and other methods.

Nontraditional Student

A student who does not fit the standard profile of a college student, such as those taking courses part-time or in an unconventional format. Many adult learners are considered nontraditional students, since they may have commitments outside of coursework (such as work or family obligations) that affect their educational pursuits. (See the National Center for Education Statistics’ extensive overview of nontraditional students here).

Open Educational Resources (OER)

Resources for teaching, learning, and research intentionally licensed for free use. A growing international movement of educators is advocating for their use to further collaboration, improve curriculum, and bring down costs for learners.

Prior Learning Assessment (PLA)

A credit for prior learning assessment is used at colleges and universities to recognize knowledge, skills, or experience acquired outside of the traditional academic setting. Through a PLA, adults can validate their past learning experiences in order to receive credit towards their degree.

Re-entry or Returning Student

An individual returning to postsecondary education after a period of absence. Re-entry students often require additional support services and resources, such as academic advising or counseling, to help them reintegrate into the educational system.

Reverse Articulation and/or Transfer

Through reverse articulation or reverse transfer, students can combine the credits they earn at their four-year university with those they had previously earned at community college and retroactively be awarded an associate degree.

Some College, No Credential (SCNC)

Also referred to as a “some college, no degree,” are students that have stopped out (see “Stopout Student” below) before credential or degree completion. The National Student Clearinghouse estimates that there are at least 40.4 million SCNC students in the U.S.

Stopout Student

A student who, unlike a “dropout” student, takes an intentional break from their studies before returning either to the same program or school, or another one. Stopouts often bring real-world experience and clarity about their educational goals upon returning to higher education, yet struggle to find a balance between work, family, and coursework. Subsets of SCNC students include Potential Completers (former students with two or more years of higher education completion) or Recent Stopouts (students that have left higher education for one to two years).

See our guide to the most common myths about stopout students here

Transcript Withholding

Allows colleges and universities to prevent students from accessing their academic transcript. Institutions use this process as a tool to get students to pay debts owed to the institution.

Knowing key terms related to adult learner support can help to better understand the needs of this unique population and create effective strategies for helping them succeed. Yet it’s important to understand that these terms are just the beginning when it comes to supporting adult learners. Educators and administrators need to stay up to date on the latest resources, tools, and strategies for helping adult learners reach their goals.

To learn more about adult learners, stopout students, and to gain insights on how to provide best-in-class support, see our Resources page.

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