In the fall of 2018, before COVID-19 hit, 35% of college students were enrolled in at least one distance education course. About 18% were taking all of their classes online.
Less than two years later, as the pandemic ripped through the globe and threatened lives and livelihoods, distance education had become the norm. Adult students could juggle work and school from home, often while helping their own kids manage virtual learning and seemingly endless Zoom meetings.
What will higher learning look like for adult students as the pandemic begins to wind down and we regain a sense of normalcy? The wisest schools will heed the lessons of the pandemic, offering students greater flexibility to honor their many commitments.
How the Pandemic Changed Learning
If you live with school-aged children, it’s already no secret that the pandemic fundamentally altered education. For many families, those changes were not for the better. The rapid shift from in-person education to online learning posed numerous challenges across the country. College students, too, had to adjust their expectations, transitioning from a dorm-centered social life to quiet learning at home—often with parents in the background trying to do work remotely.
The Upside of Online
This isn’t the whole picture, though. Schools that already had an online learning platform and a history of catering to distance learning were well-equipped to quickly make the transition, and some other schools quickly met the distance learning challenge.
As adult learners settled into online learning, they found that:
- It demanded less time, because there was no commute, no need to get fully dressed, and no need to find parking.
- It required less emotional energy.
- It allowed them to stay home with their families, tending to their children’s needs and often learning alongside their kids.
- It offered a lower-stress way to learn, particularly for people with anxiety, those who wish to avoid crowds, and introverts.
A Continued Desire for Distance Learning
Although some students may be eager to once again hug their classmates, many have now seen the myriad ways that online learning can improve their lives. They don’t want to go back. They want something better, blending the convenience of online instruction with the quality of traditional learning.
The pandemic offers institutions of higher learning a powerful moment to pivot. They must seize this opportunity, learn from the challenges they have faced, and embrace growth and change. Adult education has always presented unique challenges. The pandemic has demonstrated an opportunity to answer those challenges once and for all.
The Unique Needs of Adult Students
Every adult learner is different—a key insight that good universities are constantly mindful of. It’s also important to bear in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all adult learner. Some are harried professionals; others are retirees; many are juggling work and a family; sometimes, they may even be single parents.
Some common needs of students in adult education include:
- More flexible schedules and the ability to choose classes that fit into those schedules
- Distance learning options, because long commutes to school may make or break a person’s ability to meet all of their obligations
- Degree programs that focus on career readiness, without any fluff
- Highly qualified instructors who can prepare them for the rigors of the working world
- A chance to network with other students, so they can support one another after graduation
- The opportunity to minimize expenses by graduating quickly and taking as few classes as possible
- Mindfulness about the risks of debt, and reluctance to take on large student loans
- Understanding of their circumstances, for instance, they may have previously put their degree on the back burner because of financial or health issues
- Help with defaulted student loans
Adult education in the post-pandemic world must be increasingly mindful of these needs, especially as families work to dig themselves out of the financial and emotional hole that COVID created. Educational programs that can address these needs—and mitigate the many challenges adult learners face—will rise to the top when the pandemic is behind us.
How Adult Education Could Change After the Pandemic
The pandemic has made the case for online learning. It has shown us that schools that resist virtual learning will struggle, while those who have invested in distance learning resources can better serve their students, particularly during a crisis.
Here are some of the changes we anticipate in adult education moving forward:
- More schools will offer online learning, but the quality of platforms will vary.
- Schools with significant online learning experience will excel.
- Schools will focus more on flexibility, offering more choice to their students.
- Institutions of higher learning may devise new ways for learners to connect across distances.
- Asynchronous learning will become more accepted.
- School may become more affordable thanks to lower overhead and an increase in online learning.
- Many institutions will find ways to help students graduate more quickly.
Choosing the Right Adult Education Program for Your Needs
If you hope to use the crisis of the pandemic as an opportunity to pivot to a new and better life, returning to school is a powerful first step. Some questions to ask as you compare adult education programs include:
- Is the program accredited, and by whom?
- Does the program offer flexible scheduling?
- Is online learning an option, even when we’re not in pandemic? What does the school do to ensure equality online learning?
- Are there strategies in place for helping students manage student debt and fund their education?
- Does the school offer credit for prior learning or have other policies in place to help students graduate more quickly?
- Does the school offer a program that is likely to yield a meaningful career?
- What is the graduation rate? What is the post-graduation employment rate?
- Who teaches classes? Are they considered experts in their field?
The SNU Difference
Adult learners are different. Instead of focusing on learning their interests and finding themselves, their goal is to graduate with a marketable degree as quickly as possible. They bring their unique life experiences and insights to their schoolwork.
SNU recognizes this and has designed a number of programs that cater specifically to adult learners. Whether you’re finishing up your undergraduate degree, enrolling in college for the first time, or hope to become an expert in your field with a doctorate, we can support you as you navigate the road from where you are to where you want to go.
SNU has always valued our students’ time. We believe that you can balance work, school, and life, and we endeavor to help you do just that. The right adult education program can help you pursue a brighter tomorrow without destroying your life today. To learn more, check out our free guide, What to Expect from an Online Degree Program.