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Before joining Post University, I was an adjunct faculty member at Manhattanville College, where I taught “Career and Work/Life Planning” for nine years. It was a mandatory course for incoming adult learners.

I felt I learned just as much from my students as they did from me. I was always fascinated to understand more about why my students returned to college, especially if they have been out of school for some time. I gleaned insights from talking with my students, but I wanted to dig deeper.

So about five years ago, I began more formal research into what drives adults to return to college. I scoured literature from many leading researchers, including Sharan Merriam, Bernice Neugarten, Carol Aslanian, and Malcolm Knowles.

I discovered some common threads running through their research, and I concluded that three factors needed to be present to drive adult learners to earn their college degree: participation, persistence, and motivation.

In addition, beyond these three factors, I also found some reports that emphasized how life events and transitions influence adult learners’ decisions to go back to school.

Most recently, I returned to my findings to determine if they still hold true today. I conducted a second phase of research, and found these factors still endure today. More importantly, I identified what these findings mean for educators, and outlined several modern ways educators should use this information to better serve their students.

I wrote a report explaining these findings that I wanted to share with you. Here it is below. After you give it a read, please feel free to let us know what you think in the comments section. If you’re an adult learner, do you think this reflects why you went back to school? If you’re an educator, do you think these factors align with what you’re seeing at your institution? What does this information mean to you? How can you/we best use this information?

Adults in College

As a previous adjunct faculty member at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., for nine years I taught the course, “Career and Work/Life Planning,” a mandatory class for incoming adult students returning to college. Its intent is similar to that of Post University’s Career and Self Awareness courses. One of these courses in particular, “Learning Across the Lifespan,” is a requirement for all adult learners, and helps them make a successful transition back to school. It teaches adult learners about our university resources, as well as the policies, procedures, and educational skills crucial to success at Post and as a lifelong learner.

As preparation for my Manhattanville class, beyond the curricula, it was both necessary and fascinating for me to learn why adults return to college. What unique meaning does an adult’s education carry for them? What has motivated them to return to college and stay the course to attain a degree, after some/many years away from a formal educational setting?

My literature review and research discovered that three critical factors needed to be present to ensure students have the best chance to attain their degree: participation, persistence, and motivation. Additionally, Aslanian and Brickell’s (1980) work concluded that the influence of life transitions formed a stimulus for adults to return to college.

Therefore, as would apply to our online population of returning adult students, how can the body of work dedicated to researching and publishing relevant data assist our advisors as well as our success coaches and others? Armed with highlights of this research, many questions come to mind for educators.

  • To what extent can we inquire as to one’s motivation for returning to college?
  • What about the obstacles along the way?
  • How can we support/enhance a student’s persistence in facing inevitable challenges — by way of participation from online discussion boards and being present in an online course, to becoming a part of the institution’s virtual community?
  • In what ways can an institution of higher learning create an environment that encourages participation as a necessary element to succeed in an online class?
  • How can we help set the expectation (and student accountability) that increased participation can mean to increase the odds of completing one’s degree?
  • Additionally, since this literature review and research was conducted more than five years ago, have these findings changed over the years? What, if any, new trends have been identified?

Yes, I realize more questions than answers. So, to proceed …

With an ever-increasing adult population returning to formal education and the challenges of retention, I believe armed with key triggers for ensuring a successful education journey can help the student, the support staff, and the university.

So, to begin I will first expand on the findings from my original literature review. Additionally, I will provide clarification as to life events and transitions as stimuli or triggers for adults to return to college. Then, my original literature review and the research findings will be updated with current research findings. In doing so, it can be determined to what extent these factors are enduring, and what new factors, if any, have more recently been identified and are prominent in this population.

The Factor of Participation

Knowles (1990) offered that one’s readiness to learn is predicated on those things that help one cope more effectively with real-life situations (Knowles, 1990). I looked at the emerging and growing trend as evidenced in participation studies dating back to the 1920s. Merriam offered no neat boundaries, such as age or mission, and the myriad content areas, delivery systems, goals, and clienteles makes simple understanding and categorization difficult (Merriam, 1994).

Rather than inhibit analysis of this phenomenon, there has been great interest. The fact remains, adult education is voluntary in nature. As reported in Framing New Terrain: Older Adults and Higher Education (Lakin, Mullane, & Robinson, 2007), by 2030, 20 percent of the U.S. population (more than 7 million people) will be aged 65 and older (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005c).

The authors go on to state that these are “numbers that call for us to re-frame our policies across many sectors, including workforce development, community service, and post-secondary education itself (p. 2).”

Age was an assumed factor, as my earlier findings addressed the population of returning adult students. Confirming this finding, it was reported that perhaps the greatest factor influencing older adults’ participation in education and the workforce is age. Research by Aslanian and Clinefelter found that as applied to online education, the median age of participation was 31 (C. Aslanian & Clinefelter, 2012).

Armed with both current research and the prediction for demographic trends, we see an ever increasing rate of participation for adults in education. Combining the trend of demographics, a second factor, finding a job or advancing in a present job has been reported in national surveys as primary reasons for participating in adult education (Harringer, 1994).

The Factor of Persistence

Tied closely to participation is persistence. One can argue that getting into a four-year college is no guarantee that one will graduate from that college. Therefore, I am defining persistence as factors that can ensure student success over four years, resulting in graduation.

Boshier (1973) offered a model derived from his research. Boshier reported that the model asserts that congruence both within the participant and his/her educational environment determines participation/non-participation and dropout/persistence (Boshier, 1973).

In considering the influences of such factors as participation and persistence, and the influences between the learner’s motive and the educational environment, the concept of persistence takes on a broader dimension. The issues surrounding why adults come to college and why they remain in college clearly places the onus on the educational institution and its response to their presence.

As reported by Harringer (1994) in her work “Adults in College,” factors of persistence take on new meaning through the lens of personal growth. The above research studies presents us with evidence that supports such motivational factors as job advancement and employment opportunities.

The Factor of Motivation

Motivation is closely tied to participation and persistence, and perhaps is the underpinning for both. I believe motivation in adults cannot be viewed without a brief reference to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The need for self actualization as proposed by Maslow — becoming all that one is capable of becoming — has much relevance in this discussion.

In Maslow’s humanist orientation, the motivation to learn is intrinsic. When one considers the phenomena of motivation, two broad perspectives emerge: that of the internal and external influences.

I like the definition as further defined by Self-Determination Theory (Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier, & Ryan, 1991). When applied to the realm of education, Self-Determination Theory is “concerned primarily with promoting in students an interest in learning, a valuing of education, and a confidence in their own capacities and attributes (p.325).”

More recently, the research by Aslanian and Clinefelter (2012) supported my original findings in that the factors of job advancement and employment opportunities remained key motivators. In fact, they reported four factors motivating adult learners to return to college — all career driven.

These factors were 1) to advance in their current career, 2) to change careers, 3) to keep up-to-date in their careers, relative to job advancement and employment opportunities, and 4) to meet credential and licensure requirements for their jobs.

These factors amounted to a total of 92 percent of their surveyed population sample of 1,500 students. Since most adult learners are employed (even with today’s unemployment rate hovering around 8 percent) and derive much of their identity from work, it is not surprising to find research that even earlier studies reported at least half of them were involved in education for job-related reasons (Harringer, 1994).

Life Events as Triggers to Return to College

Following the work of Neugarten (1976) and others, we see that life events and transitions are significant influencers to both adult learning and the role of formal education. Through work and family, the major arenas of adult life, it is the events that take place in those arenas that structure the adult life — or what Neugarten referred to as the punctuation marks (Neugarten, 1976, p. 18) that shaped the life-course.

Merriam further defined this concept as normative and non-normative, with normative life events lending predictability to adult life and non-normative events described as disruptive (Meriam, 1994). Merriam offered that non-normative life events also present stimuli for learning, and that they motivate much of adult learning.

Earlier research appears to support these findings. Aslanian and Brickell (1980) from their national sample of adults found that 83 percent of adult learners were engaged in learning “because of some past, present, or anticipated transition in their lives (p. 78).”

They wrote, “Adults come to realize that they will have to learn something new if they are going to make the transition successfully (p. 52).” This also appears consistent with Knowles offering of an adult task orientation to learning, thereby more effectively coping with real-life situations.

Better serving students

This research can provide important insight for educators into how they can use the three factors outlined above to better serve their students’ needs. From my perspective, several crucial takeaways have emerged for how educators can influence of the factors of participation, persistence, and motivation for increased student success.

Participation. One of the biggest ways educators can improve student participation and engagement is through robust online discussion boards. These discussions can foster asynchronous dialogue and let adult learners contribute their thoughts anytime they desire and their schedules allow. Conversations can continue well after a formal, faculty-prompted thread is started, keeping students continually and deeply involved in the learning process. Another important way to increase participation is through practice-based, relevant curricula and assignments that require students to apply what they’re learning in real-time to their careers. This approach helps adult learners instantly use their education to do their jobs better, share the outcomes with their professors and peers, gaining valuable insight and feedback along the way and taking positive steps to advance their careers. This is the primary reason most adults return to college, as many of the students we’ve featured on our blog have attested.

Persistence. Enhancing student retention is a function of several factors. First, educational institutions should provide a strong support network for students, including the ability to build close relationships with academic advisors, faculty, and fellow students. As we’ve blogged about previously, strong support networks are especially important for online learners, who aren’t on campus physically and don’t’ have access to in-person interaction. Also, educational institutions can improve retention by providing a clearly defined degree plan that maps out how students will progress toward graduation. This plan helps keep students on track and lets them anticipate their schedules well in advance. What’s more, educational institutions should offer flexibility in delivery so students can effectively balance work, family, and education, and plan any contingencies if life events cause them to have to take some time off from their degree program.

Motivation. Motivating adult learners requires several strategies. Chief among them is consistent, robust feedback from scholar-practitioner faculty members, which is something Post University alumnus Vanessa Meredith emphasized in a podcast on our blog. Also, educational institutions should provide students opportunities to apply course learnings to workplace challenges. This motivates adult learners because they immediately understand why they are doing certain assignments and learning particular material. Jean Fredrick, Director of Marketing for Sloan Consortium and Post University alumnus, cited a good example of this when we interviewed her for our blog. She told us how one of her assignments for a marketing course was to create an actual marketing plan for her organization. In turn, degree programs should be set up so that instructors and peers provide adult learners real-time feedback and guidance along the way to reinforce lessons and takeaways.

Great insight can be gained by examining why adult learners return to college, insight that is vital to improving students’ educational experiences and ensuring they are gaining the full realm of benefits possible through higher education. Educational institutions should continue to study why adult learners return to college so that they can strengthen their offerings and ensure they are aligned with students’ evolving needs — and the workplace realities.


Aslanian, C., & Clinefelter, D. (2012). Online College Students 2012: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences.

Aslanian, C. B., & Brickell, H. M. (1980). Americans in Transition: Life Changes as Reasons for Adult Learning. New York: College Entrance Examination Board.

Boshier, R. (1973). Educational participation and dropout. A theoretical model. Adult Education 23(4), 255-282.

Deci, E. L., Vallerand, R. J., Pelletier, L. G., & Ryan, R. M. (1991). Motivation and Education: The
Self-Determination Perspective. EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGIST, 26(3 & 4), 325-346
26(3 & 4), 325-346.

Harriger, C. (1994). Adults in College. In J. D. Sinnott (Ed.), Interdisciplinary Handbook of Adult Lifespan Learning (pp. 171-185). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Knowles, M. (1990). The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species. Texas: Gulf Publishing.

Lakin, M. B., Mullane, L., & Robinson, S. P. (2007). Framing New Terrain: Older Adults and Higher Education.

Merriam, S. (1994). Learning and Life Experience: The Connection in Adulthood. In J. D. Sinnott (Ed.), Interdisciplinary Handbook of Adult Lifespan Learning. Wesport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Neugarten, B. L. (1976). Adaptation and the Life Cycle. The Counseling Psychologist 6(16).