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Adult learner (aka mature student) is a term used to describe any person socially accepted as an adult who is in a learning process, whether it is formal education, informal learning, or corporate-sponsored learning.

Adult learners are considered distinct from child learners due primarily to the work of Malcolm Knowles, who developed the principle of Andragogy. Adult learners fall into the category of nontraditional students, whom the National Center for Education Statistics defines as meeting at least one of the following seven criteria:

  • Delays enrollment (does not enter postsecondary education in the same calendar year that he or she finished high school).
  • Attends part time for at least part of the academic year.
  • Works full time (35 hours or more per week) while enrolled.
  • Is considered financially independent for purposes of determining eligibility for financial aid.
  • Has dependents other than a spouse (usually children, but sometimes others).
  • Is a single parent (either not married or married but separated and has dependents).
  • Does not have a high school diploma (completed high school with a GED or other high school completion certificate or did not finish high school).

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Adult Learners in Higher Education

Adult learners seem to be overtaking traditional students in the higher education arena. The NCES noted in a 2002 study that nearly three quarters of American undergraduate students met one of the above characteristics for classification as a nontraditional student; of those, 46% were so defined because of delayed enrollment.[1]

More than half of nontraditional students enroll in two-year institutions, and the more nontraditional they get (i.e. the more characteristics of the above list they display), the more likely they are to consider themselves working adults first and students second. According to WorldWideLearn.com, which cites research by educational journal Recruitment & Retention in Higher Education, the average adult learner is a 35-year-old, married, middle-class Caucasian mother.

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