Adult Learners in Higher Education: Facts & Statistics About Older College Students

Students older than 25 accounted for 23% of the undergraduate students who enrolled in the U.S. in fall 2022.
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Jessica Bryant
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Jessica Bryant is a higher education analyst and senior data reporter for BestColleges. She covers higher education trends and data, focusing on issues impacting underserved students. She has a BA in journalism and previously worked with the South Fl...
Published on March 22, 2024
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Lyss Welding is a higher education analyst and senior editor for BestColleges who specializes in translating massive data sets and finding statistics that matter to students. Lyss has worked in academic research, curriculum design, and program evalua...
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Data Summary

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    In fall 2022, approximately 2.9 million students over the age of 25 were enrolled in an undergraduate degree program in the U.S.Note Reference [1]
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    These students, commonly referred to as adult learners, accounted for 23% of the 12.8 million enrolled students pursuing an undergraduate degree during the period.Note Reference [1]
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    On average, more than 2 in 3 adult learners in 2022 were employed either full or part time while pursuing their degrees (69%).Note Reference [2]
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    Nearly half of older learners who enrolled in spring 2020 reported they had dependent children (48%).Note Reference [3]
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    Only about 3% of traditionally-aged learners (aged 18-24) reported the same.Note Reference [4]
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    Under Title IX, student-parents are entitled to be able to continue their studies while pregnant or parenting.Note Reference [5]

Each year, millions of adults aged 25 and over choose to enroll in college. These students are commonly known as adult learners. However, in this report, we'll often refer to this group as older learners or older college students. After all, traditionally-aged students 18-24 are also adults.

The widespread availability of online colleges can help working adults balance earning a degree with the responsibilities of everyday life. Still, older learners tend to face unique challenges while pursuing their degrees as they juggle outside responsibilities that leave them with limited financial resources to pay for schooling and even less time to sit in class.

In this report, we cover who makes up today's older learners, the most pressing challenges they face, and the Title IX protections in place to help them thrive.

Characteristics of Adult Learners

During the fall 2022 academic term, nearly 2.9 million students were undergraduate adult learners. They accounted for 23% of the undergraduate population that year.Note Reference [1]

  • 64% of older learners in fall 2022 were enrolled part-time.
  • 62% of older learners who enrolled during the period were women.

According to census data from the same year, the majority of older learners who enrolled in an undergraduate or graduate degree program were also white (65%).Note Reference [6] However, white adult learners accounted for a smaller percentage of all white college degree seekers than Black and Asian adult learners.

  • In 2022, 18.5% of older learners who enrolled were Black. They accounted for more than one-third of all Black college degree seekers that year (39%).
  • 11.7% of older learners during the year were Asian. They accounted for 37% of all Asian college degree seekers in 2022.
  • Among Hispanic students of any race, 18.5% who enrolled in 2022 were older learners and they accounted for 30% of all Hispanic degree seekers that year.

Common Challenges Older Students Face

Older learners are significantly more likely than their traditionally-aged peers to be employed full or part time while pursuing their degrees. They are additionally more likely to be parents or caregivers while in school.

In 2022, an average of 58% of full-time undergraduate adult learners and 79% of part-time undergraduate adult learners were employed either full time or part time.Note Reference [2]

Among older learners who enrolled during the spring 2020 academic term, about 48% reported having dependent children.Note Reference [3] By comparison, only about 3% of traditionally-aged students (aged 18-24) reported the same.Note Reference [4]

These added responsibilities often leave many older learners with limited financial resources for schooling and a lack of time for classes.

A 2023 survey of 65 student-parents attending 19 colleges and universities throughout the District of Columbia region found that 82% had an annual household income below $30,000 — the federal poverty level for a family of four.Note Reference [7], Note Reference [8] Despite low wages, more than half of respondents (55%) were working more than 20 hours a week while attending school, and more than one-third (37%) reported that they were caring for more than one child while studying.

A Deeper Look

Why Adult Learners Choose to Pursue Their Degrees

With a unique set of challenges and a strong need for flexible learning options, older learners tend to pursue postsecondary degrees for different reasons than traditional learners.

Adults are coming in chiefly to get a better job and better skills, said Mike Krause, senior advisor at the John M. Belk Endowment, in a February podcast episode of The Key with Inside Higher Ed.Note Reference [9] [They are] looking at higher education less about obtaining a credential and more about improving their workforce prospects.

A recent BestColleges survey revealed that nearly half of millennial students (46%) rank flexibility among their top three factors when choosing a college, compared to just 31% of Gen Z learners.

Title IX Protections for Student-Parents

Under Title IX, students who are pregnant or parenting are protected by law against discrimination and harassment from other students, faculty, and staff on college campuses.Note Reference [5]

If you are pregnant, your school must allow for excused absences or medical leave related to your pregnancy or childbirth. They must also allow you to return to the same academic status you held prior to any medical leave you take. This includes giving you opportunities to complete any work you may have missed while out.

Though you can speak with each of your professors individually about your pregnancy or parenting status, the best way to ensure your rights are protected is to sit down with your school's Title IX coordinator. Inform them of your pregnancy, keep a record of any pregnancy-related absences and instances of harassment or discrimination, and immediately report instances of discriminatory treatment.


  1. Enrollment by age. Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, NCES. Accessed March 2024. (back to footnote 1 in content ⤶)
  2. Table 503.40. Percentage of 16- to 64-year-old undergraduate students who were employed, by attendance status, hours worked per week, and selected characteristics: 2010, 2015, and 2022. NCES. July 2023. (back to footnote 2 in content ⤶)
  3. Table: Students Aged 25+ Enrolled Any Time Between January and June 2020 with Dependent Children. U.S. Department of Education, NCES, National Postsecondary Student Aid Study: 2020 Undergraduate Students (NPSAS:UG). Accessed March 2024. (back to footnote 3 in content ⤶)
  4. Table: Students Under Age 24 Enrolled Any Time Between January and June 2020 with Dependent Children. U.S. Department of Education, NCES, National Postsecondary Student Aid Study: 2020 Undergraduate Students (NPSAS:UG). Accessed March 2024. (back to footnote 4 in content ⤶)
  5. Know Your Rights: Pregnant or Parenting? Title IX Protects You From Discrimination At School. U.S. Department of Education. January 2020. (back to footnote 5 in content ⤶)
  6. Table 1. Enrollment Status of the Population 3 Years Old and Over, by Sex, Age, Race, Hispanic Origin, Foreign Born, and Foreign-Born Parentage: October 2022. U.S. Census Bureau. October 2023. (back to footnote 6 in content ⤶)
  7. The Child Care Barrier: The Impacts of Inaccessible and Costly Child Care for Student Parents. Generation Hope. March 2023. (back to footnote 7 in content ⤶)
  8. HHS Poverty Guidelines for 2024. Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. Accessed March 2024. (back to footnote 8 in content ⤶)
  9. Episode 103: Voices of Student Success: Adult Learners in Higher Education. The Key with Inside Higher Ed. February 2024. (back to footnote 9 in content ⤶)