As graduates with modern degrees appear across industries, some working professionals can feel stuck as the pace of the new world threatens to leave them behind.
In addition, with specialist roles opening up as a result of the digital age, the need to upskill is a pressing concern for many either to remain relevant in their roles or progress their careers.
As a result, the make-up of students is changing. This is evident in colleges across the U.S. as according to the National Centre for Education Statistics from 2014 to 2025, the increase for students over 25 will increase by 18%, compared to 13% for those under 25.
With a new audience to understand and target, this article explores the motivation for adult learners returning to education and how to support their learning journey.
Why Are Adults Returning To Education?
Many high school graduates go to university simply because it is the next logical step in a young life steeped in education.
With adult learners, the motivations are very different. Working professionals are typically more focused and possess the determination to advance their career. They want to study to learn new or hone existing skills, generally in a specialist area.
A few years into a career, many working professionals realize they aren't equipped with the skills to work in a technology-rich environment. A lot of these developments happened while they were working and unless it was a necessity for their job, would have gone either unnoticed or untended to.
However, as more and more companies progress on their digital transformation journey, the expertise and knowledge people need across roles and industries continue to change. As a result, the rise of the adult learner will continue to surge.
What are the Biggest Challenges for Adult Learners?
Working professionals tend to have a lot more going on than the traditional-aged college student. This makes it far from straightforward for adult learners to upskill for the industries of the future.
Re-entering education may well be necessary for many people, depending on their line of work. But for many, there are some obstacles to overcome. Such common barriers include:
- Lack of time
- Responsibility to family and children
- Financial problems
- Fear or difficulty in coping with technology in learning
- Difficulty finding the right course
Because of issues like these, some adults may be reluctant to or find it more difficult to get back into learning or commit to a learning program that puts pressure on their busy working lives.
Educators also need to bear in mind that adult learners can be selective and choose to learn what is meaningful to them and their role. As self-directed learners, the motivation also needs to come from them so they need to be engaged with the learning content and the process of learning.
While many older learners may not have been engaged in education for a while, they have a wealth of practical experience to bring to the table. So, the world has a lot to gain by helping adult learners get re-educated.
What can educational institutions do to make their lives easier?
1. Offer flexibility
The biggest concern for many working professionals who are considering further education is the lack of time and resources. With a full-time job and possibly a family, their hands are full.
The prospect of an intensive study program on top of this is a daunting proposition. Educators can help to combat this by:
- Offer more flexible teaching schedules
- Provide 24/7 access to course materials, including video lectures and printable documents through an online Learning Management System
- Increase assignment deadlines
- Use technology such as apps or forums to allow the exchange of information
The education sector is already tackling this issue by offering a wide choice of part-time courses and distance learning. So much so that the professional development market in the US is forecast to grow annually by nearly 5% to 2020.
As adult learning gets more popular, figuring out how to cater to the busy schedules of working professionals is fast becoming a top priority for education providers.
2. Provide Affordable Options
With adult life comes adult responsibility. The costs of keeping a home, a car, and children are no small matter. Education doesn’t come cheap.
Even if it is viewed as a worthy investment, many adults will simply not have the finances to afford another shot at a long degree program particularly considering that the average student graduates with $30,000 in debt.
Colleges and universities that offer affordable learning options through professional development programs are very attractive to adult learners. In addition, online certifications that are industry aligned also provide an affordable way to get a recognized qualification at an affordable cost.
The specialized nature of these type of programs means that learners are focused on the outcomes and will most likely be able to apply the learning in their role. As self-directed learners, working professionals are focused on tangible outcomes and this type of learning gives them huge value for money.
3. Customize programs for technology
As digital disruption becomes a reality for many businesses, it gets harder for working professionals to stay on top of technology developments.
Digital natives have grown up with technology meaning they are familiar with platforms and networks such as social media and quicker to adapt as technologies change. However, it is important to bear in mind that while ‘digital natives’ may be aware of technology, they may not be able to use it in the way employers require making them an audience also ripe for digital training.
For many adult learners, especially those of the older generation that acquired their skills pre-digital, it may be intimidating to return to education and learn with tech-savvy peers. The key to combating this is to customize learning and ensure that people can learn at their own pace and are given time to get to grips with new technologies.
This can be done by streamlining online learning portals with tutorials, guided help videos and access to a support desk or live chat. By doing this, adult learners can upskill in the most basic areas of modern technology, regardless of whether they are pursuing a digital career or not.
4. Link skills to role needs
A lot of adults may need to upskill to match the needs of the business, but many struggle to pin down exactly what they need due to the array of courses on offer.
As opposed to younger learners who assimilate information on a broad scale, adult learners do not want overviews. They want to acquire a specific skill set to enable them to complete particular tasks. In essence, adults need to understand why they are learning something and visualize a tangible ROI at the end.
The key for educators is to provide courses that cater to specific niches, with clear goals and a defined pathway to a better career.
With digitization now a reality for most industries, there is an increasing demand for skills like analytics or social selling. These new skillsets require professionals to upskill in particular areas that provide applicable knowledge in a reasonable amount of time.
5. Offer corporate training
Today’s employers spend $600 billion each year on informal and formal training. This significant budget demonstrates the commitment of organizations - big and small - to the knowledge of their employees.
Saying that a lot of that money is spent on upper management development rather than entry-level meaning a cohort of the workforce are not benefitting from skills development.
What is required is a learning culture that serves the entire business. Educators that offer industry aligned certification programs can tap into this market and link with local businesses of corporates in their are to provide a tailored learning program. This can range from classroom-based workshops to online courses to microlearning.
Linking academia and industry can bring huge value to adult learners by:
- Providing high-quality content designed by learning experts
- Offering relevant learning through an accessible Learning Management System
- Tracking learners activity and intervening when required
From a rigid teaching syllabus to a busy work schedule to a chaotic family life, there are a myriad of pitfalls that can hamper the ambitions of adult learners.
However, while it may not be smooth sailing, the need to upskill for the future means more and more adults are taking the plunge back into academic learning. Making it possible for more adults to get skilled for working in the digital age can only be a positive, productive mission that companies and people alike will benefit from.