Higher Education

Is college enrollment among older adults increasing? Depends who you ask

The latest federal report clashes with other estimates

More than 19 million undergraduate students are enrolled in colleges and universities for fall 2018, according to a report this week from the National Center for Education Statistics, and many of them are adults aged 25 and older.

NCES says this older student population peaked in 2010 at 8.9 million and has declined since then. But higher education experts and other federal data tell a different story. The number of older adult learners is rising, some say, and higher education institutions should do more to support them.

R. Lee Viar IV, president of the Association for Nontraditional Students in Higher Education, says there’s been a steady growth of college students who are 24 and older but data can be convoluted and interpreted in many ways.

“I liken it to the unemployment report,” said Viar. If job seekers aren’t reporting that they’re actively looking for a job, “then they’re off the job rolls,” he said. “The same is true for the adult learners.”

In other words, if older students take a year-long break from their classes, they won’t be counted in enrollment figures per se, but they may very well still be pursuing their educations.

Contrary to NCES’ latest report about the decline this decade, in April NCES stated there had been a 35 percent increase in college students aged 25 to 34 between 2001 and 2015. Between 2015 and 2026, enrollment is projected to increase 11 percent.

Julie Peller, executive director of the nonprofit group Higher Learning Advocates, says there has in fact been a decrease among older college-goers, but there are some nuances within the numbers.

“The federal data are limited in a couple of different ways,” Peller said. Only students pursuing an associate’s or bachelor’s degree are included for the government’s college enrollment count. “It does not include programs that are certificate-based or more work-forced based,” she said.

These programs don’t fit the standard definition for college, but they’re clearly a form of postsecondary education. “We’re seeing adults go to these programs, and their availability and relevance have increased over the last decade,” Peller said.

Peller’s organization is pushing the federal government to make the rules for receiving a Pell grant more flexible for older learners. These learners, Viar points out, are likely to increase as the U.S. population grows considerably older.

Higher education experts say it’s key to consider the needs of older college students when looking for ways to increase enrollment, retention and completion.

“With this influx of the adult-student population, states and institutions need to strategize how to best support these students both academically and financially,” the Education Commission of the States wrote in a 2016 report. “In addition, states will not be able to reach their set attainment goals without this important student population.

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Delece Smith-Barrow

Delece Smith-Barrow is a senior editor for higher education at The Hechinger Report. She was a 2017 Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, where… See Archive

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