Working adults need to overcome barriers to higher education all the time in order to return to school.

“The statistics on working adults returning to school are staggering,” says Pat Wyman, university instructor and CEO of HowtoLearn.com. “More than 8 million adults are actually going back to school and that brings up the need to find a way to maintain income while going back to school.”

But a simpler and more practical question might be, how do working adults go back to school?

how do working adults go back to school

“I remember when I was getting my administrative credential back in the 1980’s,” says Wyman. “The Principal of the school I worked at closed her door, and simply allowed the school secretary and me to basically run the school as she wrote her Ph.D thesis. Unfortunately, shirking your current job responsibilities is not the best way to go back to school. That principal was actually fired for not doing her job.”

” This story does highlight the kind of pressure some adults may feel about working and going back to school but there is a much better way.”

How Do Working Adults Overcome Barriers to Higher Education?

Dr. John Woods, chief academic officer and provost at University of Phoenix shares his take on how to overcome barriers to higher education for working adults. 

When we picture the typical college student, a fresh-faced, eager,18-22- year-old, may come to mind.

While the 25-and-under age group still comprises much of the student population, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) predicted that nearly 8 million college and university students in 2018 were older than 25 (compared to 12 million under 25).

While it is great to have diversity in the age of students, the problem is that higher education is not built to fit the lifestyle and needs of the older demographic. 

Unlike their under-25 counterparts, today’s working adult college students often are returning to school after time away and many possess at least one ‘nontraditional’ characteristic, like having a dependent or working full-time.

They often require education that is flexible and applicable to help them juggle attending school with work and family, while learning skills they can immediately use in their career.

Unfortunately, higher education is often not built with them in mind, and is one reason many find it difficult to pursue a degree. That is the reason it is so important for working adults to be able to answer the question, how to working adults go back to school.

A University of Phoenix survey found that time and financial barriers are holding many working adults back from pursuing more education. 

According to the survey, nearly seven in 10 (68 percent) U.S. working adults want to pursue more education, but only 45 percent said that they would be likely to go back to school considering the realistic barriers in their life.

When asked what these barriers were, 69 percent said the financial investment and 65 percent said debt. Close behind were classes that interfere with work and life (63 percent) and the workload required (59 percent). 

Breaking down these barriers to higher education could lead to greater academic achievement for today’s adult learners.

With no barriers in place, 80 percent of working adults said that they would be very/somewhat likely to pursue more education.

How Do Online Programs Help Working Adults Maintain Their Income and Return to School?

Among surveyed working adults who said that they are going to or plan to go back to school, nearly half (49 percent) of respondents said that they plan to enroll at an institution offering online programs. 

Those numbers are on- trend with the rise in popularity and acceptance of universities offering online programs, with about one in six students attending online in 2017.

This decision could be influenced because of the flexibility that online programs offer that helps overcome some of the barriers to education and provides one answer to the question about how do working adults go back to school.

While this is great for adult learners looking to return to school to enhance their education, it is important that they make the distinction between online programs and those specifically built for working adults.

Institutions that help break down barriers to pursuing education could help encourage more working adults to pursue their educational dreams.

What Are the 4 Criteria to Consider When a Working Adult Returns to School?

 Below are four criteria working adults should consider when finding an institution to fit their needs. 

Small class sizes. Working adults often seek individualized attention and instruction. This is especially important in the online modality, where face-to-face interaction is limited or non-existent.

Small class sizes allow faculty to individualize instruction and provide more context or support to students who may need more help understanding the course material.

This can help working adults who have limited time for class and study time while juggling work and family responsibilities. 

Applied learning. It is critical that classes are designed with a model of learn, practice, apply. 

This means exactly what you might think. Through this model, students are introduced to concepts and they can understand and apply them to real-life situations. This can be important for working adults, who may have less time to devote to learning a concept. They need education and industry-knowledge that they can apply immediately toward their job or career prospects.

Practitioner faculty. Faculty who are also practitioners, understand that working adult learners may need and want the shortest path from learning to making sense of something.

They know that this student population wants to be able to apply their education immediately, in real life, because they themselves are practitioners in the fields in which they teach. They bring a unique perspective to the classroom.

Practitioner faculty not only have academic credentials; they also have the day-to-day professional experience they bring to the faculty-learner relationship.

Professional applications. Adult learners – and frankly all students – may often wonder, “Why am I learning this?” It is important that courses are designed with an eye towards practicality and context.

Courses should include a clear explanation of why the course should matter to the student, as well as how it fits into their professional aspirations.  Possessing this knowledge can help ensure a student is engaged and understands how the curriculum applies toward their goals.

The barriers many working adults face often are the direct result of an education system that is built for specific students and has not evolved to meet the needs of a diverse student population.

While there are improvements, adults seeking higher education should be sure to consider offerings and modality that are specifically designed to fit their needs. It is never too late to earn a degree, and programs that help to break down barriers can make it easier for all students to achieve their educational aspirations.  

To learn more about how University of Phoenix is built for working adults, visit phoenix.edu/why-phoenix

About the Author:

Dr. John Woods is the chief academic officer and provost at University of Phoenix. His mission is to help create programs that answer the question how do working adults go back to school and do so in an environment that best supports each student.

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