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Which Colleges Serve the Most Adult Students?

Data from the U.S. Department of Education highlights which schools draw the most students over 24 years old

Taylor Nichols Written By: Taylor Nichols
Published: March 31, 2022
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Key Insights:

  • Online schools dominate the list of colleges with the most adult learners
  • Large community colleges in Texas and California are popular for adults in professional programs
  • More than 50% of students at Harvard and USC are in graduate school

Today's college students are no longer just 18-24 year olds earning their bachelor's degree with limited career experience. Today, adults make up 25% of the college student population. In fall 2019, a total of 6.5 million students age 25 or older enrolled in 3,833 degree-granting schools in the United States.

Many of those adult students are going to college for the first time, while others have some college credits but no degree. Another large subsect are continuing education to advance or change careers by earning certificates, graduate degrees, and other credentials.

Many of the norms and processes in higher education function to exclude working adults, people who are primary caregivers for children or parents, and those with other responsibilities. Many adults wonder if they can go to college, if they'll be accepted, and how to even start the process.

For most college students who are not recent high school graduates, a few simple accommodations can remove barriers. Things like rolling admissions, degree programs for specific careers, evening classes, part-time options, flexible credit transfer policies, credits for prior learning, childcare, and career planning all help make higher education more accessible for adults.

We took a look at which colleges served the most adult learners in fall 2019 based on the latest comprehensive enrollment data available from the U.S. Department of Education.

Colleges with the Most Adult Learners

School Number of Students Age 25+ Percent of Students Age 25+
Western Governors University
124,943 91.78%
Southern New Hampshire University
87,540 77.13%
University of Phoenix-Arizona
83,965 88.65%
Grand Canyon University
68,324 71.01%
Liberty University
59,551 70.31%
Walden University
46,457 96.04%
University of Maryland Global Campus
45,120 77.43%
American Public University System
37,875 83.83%
Capella University
35,719 94.35%
Purdue University Global
32,343 84.81%
Arizona State University Digital Immersion
31,017 68.82%
Ashford University
28,839 88.41%
Ivy Tech Community College 27,875 38.47%
The University of Texas at Arlington 26,586 54.66%
Chamberlain University-Illinois
25,714 92.70%
Colorado Technical University-Colorado Springs
23,845 87.57%
Houston Community College 23,246 41.85%
Excelsior College
22,248 88.18%
Harvard University 20,469 64.66%
Eastern Gateway Community College
18,776 73.21%
Columbia Southern University
18,678 93.23%
University of Southern California 18,464 38.21%
Florida International University 18,015 30.68%
East Los Angeles College 17,762 48.16%
University of Central Florida 17,349 25.00%

Source: IPEDS

Schools with the Most Adult Students

Large Online Colleges

The vast majority of schools on this list serve at least 75% of their students online, which is not a huge surprise. We expected to see some of the biggest online colleges here, some of which have been offering online degrees since the 1990s. These institutions are uniquely able to serve a large number of students, which explains why they're some of the largest colleges in the country.

However, all of these schools also serve a majority of adult learners. It's no secret that online colleges are a popular option for adults who often have full-time jobs, families, and other responsibilities that make it difficult to attend class during the day on campus.

It was somewhat of a surprise just how heavily these online colleges skew toward students over 25. For each predominantly online school on this list, the student population is at least 68% adult learners.

Federal earnings data shows many of these online schools offer high alumni salaries and affordable tuition rates, a balance that can be difficult to find when you're not able to relocate for school.

Employment data shows online programs are also highly popular for healthcare majors, which helps boost median alumni earnings for many of these schools, and military students.

These findings highlight just how critical online schools are for adults returning to education — a need that has been exacerbated during COVID-19 as millions of workers have lost their jobs and changed careers.

Online schools really market to adult learners by advertising their flexibility and convenience, and have filled a gap in higher ed for these students over the last few decades. However, many online schools have faced legal challenges for predatory practices and are characterized by a history of poor student outcomes. The wide variety of online schools today means there are many more quality options available.

Community Colleges

Community colleges have also long been a mainstay in adult education. Like online schools, they uniquely meet the needs of learners 25 and older, especially those who are looking for shorter programs and targeted career training at a lower price point. These often look like first-professional certificate programs or associate degrees. Two-year institutions tend to be more focused on the needs of their local community, whereas many four-year colleges compete for students from across the country.

Four community colleges accounted for nearly 88,000 adult learners in 2019:

  • Ivy Tech Community College (Indiana)
  • Houston Community College (Texas)
  • Eastern Gateway Community (Ohio)
  • East Los Angeles College (California)

Texas and California are home to some of the largest community colleges in the country, and are the first and second-largest states by population. Both East Los Angeles College and Houston Community College also play a critical role for career training in their communities by serving high numbers of first professional students.

Ohio community college Eastern Gateway, which serves a majority of online learners and is one of the largest online two-year colleges in the country, saw a significant jump in enrollment, especially for adult learners, from fall 2019 to 2020.

Employment data from Burning Glass Technologies, an analytics company that provides current workforce updates based on social media profiles and job sites, highlights career pathways for adult learners at these schools.

Based on alumni who graduated from 2011 to 2021, these community colleges tend to be popular with registered nurses and employees who pursue careers in business and retail trade after graduation. The top industries for these alumni are healthcare and retail trade, with Memorial Herman, Amazon, Walmart, and Houston Methodist as top employers.

Other Universities

Surprisingly, elite colleges Harvard and the University of Southern California both appear here. This can partially be explained by the size of their graduate programs. Harvard and USC are two of the largest graduate schools in the country, with 68% and 58% of their students enrolled in graduate programs in 2019, respectively.

The University of Texas at Arlington, Florida International University, and the University of Central Florida are located in two of the largest states by population. These colleges are unique on the list in that the majority of their students are undergraduates enrolled on campus.

Accessible Higher Ed and the Workforce

Census data shows about two-thirds of Americans don't have an undergraduate degree. Another 36 million have some college credit but no degree. Those numbers don't include college graduates who may also return to college. That's a significant subsect of our workforce that needs access to education options to help them upskill, switch careers, get a promotion, or increase their salaries.

Accessible education is critical for our labor force, and has become even more so as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to shake up our economy. Adults have often been seen as "nontraditional students" in the past, and been treated as such. However, enrollment declines over the last decade, felt most acutely during COVID-19, have shown many colleges they can no longer afford to ignore this group of students.

Online colleges have long targeted this group by offering the flexibility and specific career programs adult learners need and often don't find at other universities. The emergence of other education options, such as coding bootcamps, and the growing popularity of online colleges both point to an emerging trend, and one that is likely to continue as the Great Resignation continues in 2022.

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