Adult Learners – Unique Paths to Academic Success

Adult Learners – Unique Paths to Academic Success

Karyn Rabourn, Rick Shoup, & Allison BrckaLorenz — 

Adult learners are academically engaged despite fewer interactions with peers and faculty.

Adult learners are a growing population who have unique desires for and challenges with higher education. A study of the academic engagement and campus interactions of adult learners found that compared to their traditional-aged peers, adult learners are more engaged academically, interact less with their peers and faculty, have positive perceptions of teaching practices and interactions with others, and find their campus to be less supportive (Figure 1). The needs and constraints of adult learners may be completely different from those of traditional-aged students; therefore it is important to consider their unique experiences to ensure the support of all students’ success.


Adult learners are a growing population in the U.S. postsecondary education system that experience distinct barriers to academic success. However, higher education institutions continue to create and adhere to policies that favor traditional college students. Given that adult learners are becoming more common across the higher education landscape, it is important to better understand their characteristics and experiences to ensure this population is supported to success.


In a study of over 146,000 first-year students, several measures of academic engagement and campus interactions were examined by adult learner status. As noted in Figure 1, adult learners reported significantly higher academic engagement on two measures with lower engagement in Quantitative Reasoning. With respect to interactions with others, adult learners reported significantly lower levels of Collaborative Learning, Discussions with Diverse Others, Student-Faculty Interaction and Supportive Environment. The lack of interaction with peers and faculty members does not appear to diminish their perceptions of faculty teaching practices or the quality of interactions with other people on campus, as they reported significantly higher Effective Teaching Practices and Quality of Interactions.




At first glance, these findings may appear to indicate a gap in the educational quality of these students’ experiences. Upon closer inspection, however, engagement needs of these students may differ and therefore should be viewed differently in relation to their traditional peers. For example, adult learners may not benefit from the experiences of collaborating with classmates if they have collaborative experiences in their work environment. Adult learners may also not require the mentoring and support from faculty that traditional undergraduates depend on, as they already have clear goals and direction. Adult learners may not feel supported by their institutions, but perhaps the ways in which they define support is different that the ways that many traditional undergraduates do.

This study found adult learners to be academically engaged despite fewer interactions with peers and faculty. Adult learners may thus be more successful at navigating towards their own paths for academic success than traditional-aged students. Additionally, research should examine what a supportive environment might look like for an adult learner. These students may need and desire different kinds of support than their traditional-aged peers, and the ideal supportive environment should be explored for this growing subpopulation.



Rabourn, K. E., Shoup, R., & BrckaLorenz, A. (2015, May). Barriers in Returning to Learning: Engagement and Support of Adult Learners. Paper presented at the Annual Forum of the Association for Institutional Research, Denver, CO.