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92 Million Adult Learners Set New Traditions in Higher Education

Despite being classified as non-traditional students, more than 58% of college students today are over the age of 22, and 40% study part-time. Not only are these adult learners quickly becoming the norm, they are changing higher education and financial aid policies as they go. Higher Education: More Necessary than Ever
Higher education is more important today than ever before. Ninety percent of the fastest growing jobs in the US require some post-secondary education, and 63% of the decade’s nearly 20 million new jobs will require a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Unfortunately, in 2004 only 28% of Americans had a bachelor’s degree, so upgrading the education level of the workforce is fast becoming a national priority.

Re-thinking “Tradition”
While the media may portray higher education as just tree-covered campuses and four-year institutions full of 18-22 year olds, in reality today’s learners are much more diverse. In fact, the so-called traditional college students make up only 16% of today’s college enrollment–about 3 million of the nation’s 17 million. So what about the other 14 million?

Non-Traditional Students
Adult learners and other non-traditional students are making us re-think the way we define traditional. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a non-traditional learner is someone who:

1. Does not enter college immediately after high school.
2. Attends part time rather than full time.
3. Works 35 hours a week or more.
4. Is financially independent as defined by financial aid criteria.
5. Has dependents other than a spouse.
6. Is a single parent.
7. Lacks a high school diploma (though may have a GED).

Who Are Today’s Students?
Despite the name, non-traditional students are fast becoming the norm. In fact, according to Eduventures statistics:

������� 40% of today’s students study part-time
������� 40% attend two-year institutions
������� 58% are aged 22 or older
������� 40% are economically independent and over the age of 24
������� 12% are over 40

Adult Education–92 Million and Counting
Not only is the number of non-traditional students on the rise, increasingly more adult learners participate in continuing professional education. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 92 million adults, or 46% of the US adult population, participated in some form of adult education in 2001. Of these, 8 million adults were enrolled part-time in college degree or certificate programs, and almost 60 million adults participated in work-related courses.

New Traditions: The Impact of Nontraditional Students on Higher Education
The surge in non-traditional students and adult learners has brought with it real changes to higher education, including:

������� A shift towards career-oriented and work-training education
������� Shortening the time needed for degree programs
������� An increase in online education
������� Changes in financial aid and more support for non-traditional students

A Shift towards Career-Oriented Education
The traditional four-year degree from a university is fast giving way to a more career-oriented program. This model of higher education focuses on giving students the specific skills needed for a profession–whether in health care, computer technology or mechanics–without unnecessary coursework.

Fast Degrees–Less Time to Earn a Degree
Because of the shift towards career-oriented education, students can often complete degree programs in a matter of months, as opposed to the years it takes to complete a bachelor’s degree. Many higher education institutions now have courses that begin every few weeks or incorporate “fast-track” intensive programs or online options to speed things up.

The Growth of Online Education
Undeniably, one of the biggest changes in higher education in the last decade has been the increase in online education. Online degree programs have been the key that allows many non-traditional students to fit higher education into their busy schedules.

A 2005 Sloan Consortium report found that online enrollments grew from 1.98 million in 2003 to 3.2 million in 2005, and nearly 75% of schools offering online programs expect enrollment increases in the coming years.

More and more students are also using online education as their sole form of higher education. According to a 2005 Eduventures report, 1.2 million students were enrolled in fully online certificate or degree programs, which is about seven percent of all higher education students. And online education is only expected to grow; Eduventures’ research found that 77% of prospective students would consider enrolling in a fully online degree program.

Financial Aid Policies Respond to Needs
The explosion of adult and non-traditional learners has brought with it changes in financial aid policies, which were previously focused on traditional learners. The need for financial aid reform is long overdue, as many non-traditional students cite cost as the reason they do not pursue higher education. According to an Eduventures study, “more than 22% of prospective adult learners who choose not to enroll cite cost as an obstacle�������”

Luckily, the US Department of Education understands the importance of financial aid. In the Commission on Higher Education Reform report, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings stated that higher education generally has “yet to successfully confront the impact of�������an increasingly diverse and aging population ” and recommends massive changes to financial aid.

Some important changes in higher education policies have been made in response to the growth of adult learners, including:

������� Elimination of the 50-Percent Rule
������� Eligibility for Financial Aid extended to non-traditional and part-time students
������� Creation of Career Advancement Accounts

The 50-Percent Rule 100 Percent Gone
The 50 Percent rule, which was originally passed in 1992, prevented higher education institutions from participating in Title IV Federal financial aid programs if distance-learning courses composed more than 50% of total classes offered.

Fifteen years ago, it was passed with the noble goal of preventing diploma mills from cranking out undeserved degrees. But in 2005, the Higher Education Reconciliation Act eliminated the 50-Percent Rule, meaning that students participating in distance learning degree programs are now eligible for federal financial aid.

Increased Aid Eligibility for the Non-Traditional Student
While most federal dollars still go to full-time students, funds are now available for students at four-year or two-year public or private colleges, career schools, and trade schools. In some cases, aid eligibility extends to part-time and less than part-time students as well.

Creation of Career Advancement Accounts
In 2007, $ 3.4 million dollars were allocated to Career Advancement Accounts, which will allow 800,000 students to borrow up to $3,000 a year for two years for expenses directly related to education and training.

Re-Defining Higher Education
As adult learners and non-traditional students head back to classrooms–or sign on to distance-learning courses–they are not only demanding real changes to higher education policies, they are re-defining what it means to be a college student today.

Publish date: November 22, 2007