Category Archives: Trends & Statistics

Trends & Statistics supporting the increase in adult learners returning to the classroom.

Why Is There An Increasing Trend Of Adults Returning To The Classroom?

Trends and Roles Blog: 

Why Is There An Increasing Trend Of Adults Returning To The Classroom?

Whether you blame it on technological advances, the women’s liberation movement, market impacts, the increase in regulations, rules and certification or changing business operating philosophies, there is an increase in adults returning to the classroom.

Thirty years ago or more, most North Americans completed their schooling at a high school level and immediately entered the work force.  Going back to school was never something they would consider after they received their high school diploma.  Today, things have definitely changed and whether it’s a one day workshop, college, university or technical program or two day certification training; adults are returning to the classroom setting in one form or another.

“The number of adults (defined as aged 25 to 64) attending school full time more than tripled between October 1976 to October 1996.” (Statistics Canada, Autumn 1997 Perspectives, p. 32).  Although these statistics only take us to 1996, we can see the trend starting to erupt with the numbers continuing to rise with every year that passes.  Another study reported over the past “two decades, adult learners have comprised close to 40 percent of the college-going population, spanning a range of backgrounds and experiences.” (American Council of Education,

Whether it be full-time or part-time, a short term or long term program, there are many reasons why adults learners (defined as between the ages of 25 to 64) are returning to a classroom setting in one form or another.  This essay will provide the reasons why based on the adult learners’ personal perceptions.

My Employer Requires It and Other Work Related Reasons

The increase in provincial and federal rules and regulations governing safety and other required certification demands that employers have workers that are trained and knowledgeable in their workplace.  Required technical aspects such as WHMIS (Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System), Transportation of Dangerous Goods, Power Engineering – Class One Steam “Ticket”, Journeyman Trade “Tickets (i.e.:  Electrical or Pipefitting) and Forklift Operator Certification are just a few of the examples of the many training programs that are required at a federal or provincial level.  An employer that cannot provide documented proof of its employees’ specific training and certification could result in huge monetary fines and penalties.

Employers also identify the need for other types of educational training for their employees based on a “human relations” and behavioral approach.  The development of human rights legislation and labor laws have forced employers to take a look at the workplace they provide for their employees.  Recognizing personal weaknesses, lack of understanding or neglect and ways to improve the working environment has developed into structured instruction and teaching environments specific to their employees’ needs.  Whether in the form of a day, weekend or short-term workshops; employers are focusing on topics such as:   stress reduction in the workplace, dealing with difficult co-workers, supervisory skills, human rights and labor law in the workplace or conflict resolution.  All of these workshops are aimed to personally enrich and empower employees; improving and positively impacting the workplace environment on many different levels.

I Want More Money

“Improving one’s work prospects (and possible wage increase) is clearly the most pervasive and dominant reason for going back to school.  At least 76 percent (of respondents) and specifically, 90 percent of men over 40” gave this type of response regarding their personal motivation to return to an educational environment.  (Statistics Canada, Autumn 1997 Perspectives, p. 33).

It isn’t difficult to understand that post-secondary education in a specific field; whether academic, technical or vocational does increase an adult’s monetary wage potential.

Along with the strong portion of men over 40 returning to an education environment, so is the prospect of single parents that are faced with the challenge of raising children and supporting a household on one income.  Another large group of adult learners that are returning to school are those between the ages of 25 to 32.  Living under their parents’ roof and holding a minimum wage job while in high school afforded them all the comforts at home while having a small portion of disposable income at their fingertips.  However, once on their own they consider their minimum wage job more of a hindrance; providing unforeseen roadblocks and preventing them from obtaining those “finer things in life” such as a home, vehicle, vacation travel or possibly starting a family.  All three groups of adult learners will consider returning to school as an option to improve their job prospects and raise their employment worth.  For most adult students returning to the classroom, “attending school played an important part in their vision for the future lives.” (Zachary, Elizabeth, p. 2)

Education Is So Easy To Access Now

Gone are the days where anyone craving a need to return to school had no other choice but to physically quit their jobs, relocate to another town or city and attend classes at specific times and specific locations.  “Full-time studies require a commitment of both time and money, often in short supply, especially when family obligations vie for attention”.  (Statistics Canada, Autumn 1997 Perspectives, p. 32).

Adult learners are more motivated to return to school now as access to higher education is abundant in so many forms.  An adult learner can still physically attend day classes on a college or university campus, but they can also take advantage of a less stringent learning environment where they can complete courses in the evening or from the comfort of their own homes and on their own time through correspondence or “on-line”.  This has opened the doors for the majority of adult learners who have personal commitments such as family, existing jobs or other demands that cannot afford them the time; or the money to relocate or attend classes in a much more formal structured setting.

Building Self Confidence and Improving Social Skills

Many adult students return to the classroom for personal reasons such as building self- confidence and improving their social skills.  “For many adult students; not having completed or furthered their education made them feel less comfortable about their abilities.  By returning to school, they felt more confident about their intelligence, developed a more positive self-image and felt more comfortable interacting in their social world.  Just physically returning to school was having a tangible effect on their lives”. (Zachary, Elizabeth, p. 1).

For some adult students, learning disabilities or weaknesses in specific subjects left them with bitter memories and stories of disappointing struggles regarding their elementary or high school experiences.  These weaknesses in subjects such as reading, spelling or math have continued to hamper them in their adult years.  Many adult students have returned to the classroom setting to give “it another chance” – hoping to improve these academic skills and gain a comfort level within social settings, employment settings and within their own homes with their families.  In paper written by Elizabeth Zachary, her interviews with three specific adult students said it best:

“As Donald put it, he came back to school to “not be a fool – or let anyone call him a fool.”

“Jill explained that her increased academic skills helped her feel more confident filling out job applications and more comfortable working with her son and his homework; who is in advanced classes at school.”

“Randy urges, “I can pick up a book and read.  There were a lot of times when I couldn’t do that.  Now I feel better about myself.” (Zachary, Elizabeth, p. 2).

Self-Enrichment & Life Changes

Under this category, there are three prevalent reasons why adults may return to the classroom:

1)       To satisfy a need or desire to learn something new or develop skills and knowledge in a subject that they find interesting or fascinating.  Art, history, financial investing or psychology are just many of the different subjects that adult learners will take on “simply by doing it for educational enrichment and self-improvement”. (Adult Education Blog, p. 1)

2)      They become “concerned about community, climate change, or other social issues and want to learn how to become more positively active in the community.” (Adult Education Blog, p. 1).  In today’s educational landscape, there are many subjects available to adult students that are interested in social, political or environmental issues.

3)      Some adults (once they are in their 40’s) come to a mental “cross-roads” in their life where they begin to reflect on their career and find themselves feeling restless and unsatisfied with their current job or position.  “A midlife career change is a very common thing.  Most people this age look back and realize how hard they’ve worked and now their work is void of growth and development.  Oh course, they are feeling the desire to take on a new career.”  (Glover, Susan, p. 1).  Adults over 40 recognize that they are reaching the last chapter in their employment career and crave for something new, more enriching and enjoyable and self-fulfilling.  Other adults in this age group crave a career change in hopes to “slow down a little”.  They feel they have proven themselves, climbed that corporate ladder or accomplished enough in their career that they wish to end it on a more relaxed note;  literally coasting slowly into the employment sunset.  They do not desire to “impress others” with continuing to work a 50+ hour work week or engaging in the office politics.  They want less responsibilities, less decision making and more time to spend with family, friends and doing the things they enjoy most.

More Adults Returning To the Classroom –

Successfully Addressing and Accommodating This Trend in the Classroom

As an adult educator, one must consider the challenges of adult students and offer support to assist this group in successfully completing their educational needs.

The personal life of an adult student requires a fine balance between one’s studies, family life, present employment and other personal commitments.  As adult educators we must be sympathetic to these challenges.   One way in which I found to be an effective educator in this environment is to reduce the amount of “take home assignments, projects and homework” and schedule as many required student assignments to be completed during classroom hours.  Adult students appreciate the fact that I recognize the external pressures and responsibilities they have outside the classroom and in turn; effectively utilize their classroom time to study and complete assignments.  Another benefit is that since I have altered my curriculum to support their needs, they see appreciate this as a sign of support and are increasingly committed to the class.

The underlying need for soft skills in the work force is one that I’ve observed in my twenty-nine years of employment in the industrial field.  In today’s employment environment, adult students returning to the classroom also require soft skills knowledge and education such as communication, effectively listening skills or dealing with difficult behaviors, to effectively perform and be successful in obtaining a solid job position.  To assist adult students in becoming “a successful communicator” and being able to work well within a group, I’ve designed some student assignments to be completed as “group assignments” of varied sizes, some with two students working together, others with five students and one group large assignment completed by a group of eight to ten students.  These experiences of having to complete projects with a varying number of classmates, helps to develop the soft skills of adult students and their ability to work with others.


There is no such thing as “being too old to learn” and an adult’s craving to continually educate his or her self does help one to feel more active, more engaged and more involved.  When returning to the classroom, some adult learners already have a career chosen or goal in mind.  Others, without realizing it, may become so engaged in the study of a specific subject that he or she might be paving the road for a career change.

“As far as health, it is known that the human brain benefits from environments rich in novel and complex stimuli, and by actively participating in society and taking on personally relevant roles, people find meaning and purpose, which gives them a reason to get up in the morning and pursue new challenges.  So, go back to school and get some meaning in your life.” (Adult Education Blog, p. 1).


Adult Education Blog (2013).  Adult Education Blog: Top 15 Reasons Why Adults Go Back To School. Adult Education Classes,

American Council of Education (2013).  Adult Learners.

Glover, Susan (2010-2012).  Career Change after 40:  Top Reasons Why People Change, Do You Fit? Effective Positive Thinking.Com,

Statistics Canada (1997).  Autumn 1997 Perspectives.  Catalogue no. 75-001-XPE.

Zachary, Elizabeth (Spring 2002).  In Their Own Words: Why Adults Return To School. System for Adult Basic Education Support.