Top 3 challenges in meeting working adult learner needs

As more employers across multiple industries provide tuition support to help their employees access debt-free degrees, colleges and universities can expect to see an influx of working adults interested in gaining skills that can help them access upwardly-mobile career opportunities.

Working adult students are by no means new to higher ed —currently, a third of undergraduates are over the age of 25, and the vast majority of those students are working while in school. Given high interest in earning credentials that will better position students to access opportunity, along with a renewed focus on social mobility within the higher education sector, it may seem intuitive for colleges and universities to make serving this growing student population a priority.

Yet despite increasing awareness of these learners’ identities and needs, working adults tend to encounter common friction points in accessing and achieving educational attainment. 

The good news is these friction points are identifiable and highly addressable. Guild Education and StudioID interviewed 233 higher education administrators who are at the director level and higher to understand their perceptions of how well their institutions are supporting working adult learners, identifying three key areas where higher education can have an outsize impact on access and outcomes for these students. Below is a high-level summary of key findings from the report, as well as how institutions can think about addressing challenges.

Challenge 1: Financial supports designed for working adult learners have not been broadly implemented.

The cost of education is a colossal barrier for prospective working students. According to Guild survey data, 7 out of 10 working adults say that cost is the biggest obstacle to educational attainment without an education benefit. “Cost,” for working adults —who are often parents or caregivers and tend to face many other financial responsibilities and pressures, extends beyond tuition itself. In particular, for students who are paid hourly, there is a risk of losing money to pursue education when learning is inflexible.



Higher education administrators were asked about the financial supports designed for working adults that their institutions provide. Of the financial supports known to make education more affordable to a working adult population, only one form of support —scholarships and grants— was offered by half of the institutions represented in the survey. Other supports, such as childcare subsidies and employer partnerships were generally recognized as valuable, but not widely implemented.

Challenge 2: Institutions fall short when it comes to wraparound supports to ensure student success.

Often, the conversation about effective solutions to help working adult learners achieve a degree or credential starts and stops with online learning. Although broad implementation of flexible learning options is essential for equitable access, many working adult learners face a dearth of wraparound supports that can pave an easier path to success. These wraparound supports include making student services available online, career services, and flexible course delivery. While nearly six in 10 survey respondents said their institution provided expansive online course offerings, only one in 10 reported offering wraparound support, such as coaching and wellness services.




Challenge 3: Institutions are not helping working adult learners connect with careers to the extent they could.

Working adult learners seek consensus between their sense of purpose, their compensation, and their access to career advancement in their work. Education is viewed as a way to power greater alignment between these three qualities, and students look to their institutions for support in understanding and navigating career options. Yet despite recognizing that career supports would be helpful to working adult learners, nearly one-third of respondents reported that their school either had no initiatives to support career success for working adult learners (16%) or were unaware if they were offered (14%).

Supports that work for working adult learners

There are a variety of ways institutions can optimize to support success for working adult learners. Below are a couple key solutions discussed in the full report.

  • Financial Support: Partnering with employers that prioritize equitable access to upward mobility is a powerful intervention. Not only does employer backing help students overcome tuition cost barriers, but well-designed benefits can mean zero debt: 97% of Guild students whose employers offer tuition assistance (paying upfront on behalf of employees in lieu of reimbursing them) graduate debt-free. Childcare subsidies can also help students balance learning with familial responsibilities.
  • Academic & Career Success: Stackable credentials are increasingly recognized as an equitable way to help students expediently gain the skills necessary for advancement while empowering them to continue their progress toward degree completion. As stackable credentials often support access to in-demand jobs, they can also strongly support better career outcomes.

Download the full report here to access additional insights, data, and higher education experts’ perspectives on ways colleges and universities can further support working adult learners.

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