How Do Working Adults Go Back to School

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

“The statistics on working adults returning to school are staggering,” says Pat Wyman, university instructor and CEO of

“More than 8 million adults are actually going back to school, and that brings up the need to find a way to maintain an income while going back to school.”

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

“I remember when I was getting my administrative credential back in the 1980s,” 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?

How Do Working Adults Go Back to SchoolDr. John Woods, chief academic officer and provost at the 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 years 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 the higher education design doesn’t 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.

This includes things 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 typically is 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 essential for working adults to be able to answer the question, how do 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?

How Do Working Adults Go Back 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 may be due to the flexibility that online programs offer.

This 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, they must make the distinction between online programs and those built explicitly for working adults.

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

How Do Working Adults Go Back to School

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

1. Small Class Sizes

How Do Working Adults Go Back to SchoolWorking 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.

2. Applied Learning

How Do Working Adults Go Back to SchoolIt is critical that the course designs incorporate a model of learn, practice, apply.

This means precisely what you might think.

Through this model, students learn 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.

3. Practitioner Faculty

How Do Working Adults Go Back to SchoolFaculty 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.

4. Professional Applications

How Do Working Adults Go Back to SchoolAdult learners – and frankly, all students – may often wonder, “Why am I learning this?”

It is essential that course designs emphasize practicality and context.

Courses should include a clear explanation of why the class should matter to the student, as well as how it fits into their professional aspirations.

Possessing this knowledge can help ensure student engagement and help them understand how the curriculum applies to their goals.

The barriers many working adults face often are the direct result of an education system built for specific students that have 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 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 the University of Phoenix caters to working adults, visit

Are you thinking about going back to school?

Did you find this article informative and helpful in guiding your decision?

Do share your thoughts below!

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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Updated – November 3, 2020 ]