The Desire For a Better Life Driving Adults Back to School

A new survey explores why 1,500 adult learners have gone back to school—and what barriers they’ve faced along the way.

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A Desire to Learn That Never Went Away

When Lia Machado graduated from high school in 2009, she wanted nothing more than to go straight to college to pursue a degree. But her status as a Colombian political refugee meant that dream had to be put on hold.

Eventually, Lia became an American citizen and will finish her associate’s degree in marketing from Georgia State Perimeter College in December.

“I always wanted to go to college but I couldn’t before,” she said. “But the drive to earn a degree never wore off.”

Lia, who plans to transfer to Georgia State University to finish her bachelor’s degree, is far from alone in pursuing a college degree as an adult learner.

In 2015, more than 40 percent of college students were over the age of 24.

Pearson recently surveyed more than 1,500 of these adult learners to see why they have returned to school and what barriers they’ve faced along the way.

New Fears

A decade ago, the fear of being outsourced or replaced by younger or immigrant labor topped the list for U.S. employees worried about their job security.

Today, those traditional workplace fears are giving way to anxieties about keeping pace with technology—all against the backdrop of wanting a better life for themselves and their family.

Thomas Scheibe, a student at Pueblo Community College (PCC) in Pueblo, Colorado and a former member of the U.S. Army, enrolled at PCC after five years in the military for precisely this reason.

“To get a good job that will be a good career, I have to have those qualifications on paper,” he said. “I want to do this for my family.”

Thomas, a father of three, recently earned his associate’s degree in electrical engineering from PCC and is currently working towards a certificate in business management.


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Learning, Working, and Time for Family

For the majority of these adult learners, flexibility in how they take classes is proving to be the key to success.

Of the adult learners enrolled and working toward a degree today, less than a third are pursuing that degree only using in-person courses. The rest are using online only programs or some combination of online and in-person classes.

Combining online with on-campus classes allows Lia Machado to continue working as she goes to school, making enough money to pay her rent and other expenses.

“By taking online classes, I can go to school early in the mornings and then work my restaurant shifts in the afternoons and evenings, when the crowds are biggest,” she said.

Thomas Scheibe’s combination of online and in-person classes allow him to get the certifications he needs professionally while also working and spending time with his family.

“It’s all a lot of give and take,” he said. “I have to do well in school but I also need to spend time with my wife and my kids and go to work.”

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Tackling the Challenges Head On

As more and more students like Lia and Thomas continue their education, the industry is responding, according to Todd Hitchcock, chief operating officer for Pearson Embanet.

“As the global economy and student population change, it’s clear we need new ways for people to access to higher education,” Todd says. “Adult students are stretched with their current jobs, along with family and financial commitments.”

He says, “The higher education community needs to look toward online education, certification programs and flexible in-person programs to meet people where they are and in a way that suits their lifestyle or career needs.”

But the flexibility of online courses shouldn’t be confused with classes that are any easier than their on-campus counterparts.

“Online courses are more challenging than in-person courses,” said Thomas. “Online requires a lot of self-motivation, it’s easy to get preoccupied by life; to say ‘oh, the baby has a doctor’s appointment or there’s a big deadline coming at work, I can get to this later’ and before you know it, everything has cascaded quickly.”

Finding time for everything is difficult for Lia as well, but something she tackles willingly.

“Time management is a challenge I will admit I haven’t mastered, but it will be worth it when I have my degree,” she said.

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