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An adult learner (North America) or mature learner (UK) (sometimes also called adult student, returning adult, adult returner, and student) is a person who is 25 years and up who is involved in forms of learning. It refers to individuals whose brains are more developed.
In the US, 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: (It should be noted that not all non-traditional students are adult learners, as the term refers to the brain development of the person, but adult learners are considered non-traditional students)
- Delays enrollment (does not enter post secondary 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).
In the UK, a student is normally classified as a mature student if he or she is an (undergraduate) student who is at least 25+ years old at the start of his or her course, or in the Irish case on the first of January of the year of entry, and usually having been away from school for at least two years. The normal entry requirements for school-leavers wishing to start an undergraduate degree are often not applied to mature students.
In higher education
Adult learners seem to be overtaking traditional college students in the age range of 18-22 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. In 2008, 36 percent of post secondary students were age 25 or older (Adult Learners) and 47 percent were independent students.
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.
Studies in the UK have explored the ways in which classed, gendered and relational positionings can conflict with adult learners' education trajectory; often contributing to their withdrawal from academia.
Older adults in higher education
One challenge in higher education is to understand how older adults identify themselves. Older adults want mobility and connections with family, education, work, and community. Therefore colleges and universities need to know how adults picture themselves in terms of work, learning, and social connections. Over the last decade colleges and universities have created more programs that help older adults train for new careers, participate in community service, and learn while in retirement. However, many institutions are not following suit which stuns the vast opportunities for both higher education and society to act upon older adults’ shifting identities. It is stated that older adults are and are not identified by colleges and universities from a survey by the American Council on Education. For example, more than 40 percent of institutions that responded reported that they did not identify older adult students for purposes of outreach, programs and services, or financial aid. Likewise, the primary reasons of identification were related to noncredit programming specifically for older adults, and tuition waivers mandated by state statue, institutional policy, or both. The survey also asked questions about programs and services. Results were mixed; one institution focused specifically in older adult educations, many indicated they did not identify older adults as a student population, and some that served few to no older adults. The mixed responses highlight the range of older adults as well as a lack of awareness to older adults’ lifelong learning participation.
The older adult learner
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It is ignorant to classify the adult learner into one category, without realizing that the paradigm shift in age will be significant and relevant to identity. By the year 2020 it is estimated that 20% of the US population will be 65 years and older. With an increasing life span adults in their 50s and 60s are questioning traditional aging patterns related to identity. How society describes, how society perceives, and how older adults transition are three forefronts that will affect the paradigm shift of identity.
How one describes (descriptive language): Research suggests that members in their 50s and over report a negative reaction when being labeled as "seniors" or "older". They resist these labels because they feel they do not view themselves as part of the group. For example, the only time one admits they are a "senior" is to receive a discount. Likewise, research also suggests that members in their 50s prefer the label "aging" as it conveys a journey opposed to an ending. Even leaders in higher education are taking personal and professional interest in the labels of age. For example, the continuing education administrator whose college serves older adults, identifies herself as "one of them"  Another label is the term "retirement" which is being retired or at least redefined. Research suggests "retirees" are now considered "prime timers", or "recareers", for example, they are career shifting or becoming actively involved in their community by volunteering opposed to "wasting away". How we use descriptive language to label adults aged 55 and over needs to be re-examined to create new identities for this group as the paradigm shifts.
How one perceives (images): Today's societal views on older adults and aging consist of worn-out images in high numbers. These views come in negative images, prejudices, and stereotypes which all affect identity. Negative images and prejudices through a societal lens can be very damaging to ones' identity. An example of a negative image can be portrayed by the current idea that retirement is equivalent to "finished living". However, retirees today are busy operating on their own time, learning, and growing. Prejudices affect identity in the way that societal views strongly influence adults' perspectives about what they can do and learn. For example, the 70-year-old university president that feels the pressure to step down because she is "too old". Stereotypes affect identity similarly, for example, a societal stereotype like "once you're 50 your too old to learn" which could lead to one becoming more socially isolated foregoing the opportunities to stay engaged. Negative images, prejudices, and stereotypes that negatively affect identity must also be re-examined as the paradigm shifts.
How older adults transition (roles): With increased lifespan and economic uncertainties where do older adults go next? The need to re-examine the years after age 55 are important as this is an area of unknown development where many older adults are finding themselves crossing boundaries to start new roles and explore new environments. An example of a change in role can be illustrated by an adult in their 50s returning to college. Returning to college one definitely crosses boundaries and explores new environments. At times, these role changes can create transformative learning experiences. For example, an older adult connecting with other learners across communities and generations that then begins to understand themselves in new ways. Ultimately, shifts in roles create new learning experiences, peer-to-peer interactions, intergenerational experiences, and provides new opportunities for those (un)willing to cross.
Adult learners are diverse with regard to the following variables:
- Variable: Given the wide variety of learning experiences, adult learners are a diverse student population
- Motivation: Adult learners require either external or internal motivation to learn
- Physiological: The physical aspects of aging can impact the learner (i.e. hearing, vision, energy, and health)
- Psychosocial: Characteristics including cognitive, personality, and socioeconomic factors impact an adult's ability to learn
As opposed to a child or adolescent, adult learners typically have more life experience and their brains are more fully developed. When confronted with new knowledge or an experience, adult learners construe new meaning based on their life experiences and their more developed brains process these experiences differently than someone with a less developed brain (children and adolescents).
- Brookfield, S.D. (1991). Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning: A Comprehensive Analysis of Principles and Effective Practices. 2nd edition. Jossey-Bass.
- Crimaldi, Laura, "Older residents follow Pathway to college", Boston Herald, Sunday, January 4, 2009. About students successes in the College Pathways program at ABCD Learning Works in Boston, Massachusetts.
- Galbraith, M.W. (2004). Adult learning methods: a guide for effective instruction. 3rd edition. Krieger Publishing.
- Rogers, Alan, "Non-formal Education: Flexible Schooling Or Participatory Education?", Springer, 2005. ISBN 0-387-24636-3
- Special Analysis 2002 - Nontraditional Undergraduates
- "Yesterday's Nontraditional Student is Today's Traditional Student" (PDF). Center for Law and Social Policy. Retrieved 2010-08-09.
- Mannay, D. and Morgan, M. 2013. Anatomies of inequality: Considering the emotional cost of aiming higher for marginalised, mature, mothers re-entering education. Journal of Adult and Continuing Education. 19 (1), pp. 57-75.http://manchester.metapress.com/content/7q4h6576268w7602/
- Lakin, M. B. (2009). Forging new identities: Older adults in higher education. Journal of Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning, 2: 33-44.
- Boulton-Lewis, G. M. (2010). Education and Learning for the Elderly: Why, how, What. Educational Gerontology, 36: 213-228.
- Lakin, Mary Beth (2009). Forging new identities: Older adults in higher education. Journal of Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning, 2: 33-44.
- Merriam, S. B., & Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.