Where Have the Adult Students Gone?

May 23, 2023

With concerns about declining undergraduate enrollment among traditional-age college students, many colleges and universities have made efforts to appeal to older students who have never attended or completed college. The opportunity is vast. The latest data from the US Census shows that less than half of American adults aged 25 or older have a college degree. That equates to over 117 million people. Of those, 33 million adults have a high school diploma, and 64.5 million adults have some college but no degree.

In today’s world, career paths are no longer linear, and many adults find themselves seeking new skills or transitioning to new jobs and new industries. Rapid advances in digitization and AI-enabled technologies are making the need for education even more pressing. Starting or returning to college offers many adults the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and qualifications necessary to adapt to changing career demands and improve earnings.

Further, online education platforms, virtual classrooms, and weekend and evening classes have made education more accessible than ever before. These advancements eliminate geographic barriers and provide flexible schedules, allowing adults to balance their studies with work and family responsibilities. 

The Demographic Cliff May Not Be The Biggest Worry

Given all this, it seems plausible to think that more and more adult students would be enrolling in college. In fact, when I began collecting data for this blog, that was my hypothesis. My email inbox is rife with articles and reports highlighting successful strategies and case studies involving adult learners. So I was expecting to see evidence of increasing enrollment. However, the reality is that this has just not been happening. Rather, the trend is just the opposite. 

In 2011, adult students accounted for 34 percent of the undergraduate population at US colleges and universities. By 2021, that share had dropped to 25 percent.

Share of Undergraduate Enrollment by Student Age

In sheer numbers, enrollment fell from 6.3 million adult students in fall 2011 to 4.0 million in fall 2021 – a loss of 2.3 million students. For all the doom and gloom about the impending “demographic cliff,” the drop in traditional-age undergraduate enrollment was much less severe – down five percent during this same time period. 

Enrollment from 2011 - 2021 (students aged 25+ and students aged 24 and under)

Community Colleges Are Losing Ground

I dug a little deeper to see where the biggest enrollment declines were taking place. The loss of adult students was relatively modest at four-year public and not-for-profit institutions, down four percent and seven percent, respectively, over the last decade. 

Percent Decline in Undergraduate Enrollment by Sector - Fall 2011 to Fall 2021

In fact, both of these sectors saw their share of the adult student population grow during this time, even as the pie itself was shrinking (see chart below).  

Most surprising was the steep drop in adult undergraduates enrolled at two-year public colleges, which fell 51 percent from fall 2011 to fall 2021. Community colleges have made concerted efforts to address perceived skills gaps in their local labor markets by offering a variety of workforce-centered diplomas and degrees. But student demand for these and other programs at two-year colleges appears to have waned considerably among adult students. This sector’s share of adult undergraduates dropped from 46 percent in the fall of 2011 to 35 percent in the fall of 2021.

Share of Undergraduate Enrollment by Institutional Sector (students aged 25+)

It’s Not All Gloom and Doom

The news is not all bad, though. Some institutions have made great strides in enrolling and graduating adult students. Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University each enrolled over 90,000 adult students in the fall of 2021. The University of Phoenix-Arizona enrolled over 57,000 adult learners. 

The top 15 campuses with adult students are listed in the chart below. For seven of these institutions, adult students make up 75 percent or more of their total student population. (At Southern New Hampshire University, adults made up 74 percent of undergraduate enrollment).

Undergraduate Enrollment By Institution - Fall 2021 (students aged 25+)

Give the Adult Students What They Want

So what are these colleges and universities doing that others could potentially emulate? While it is impossible to discern all of the reasons behind their success in attracting adult learners, one data point we can examine is the programs that they offer. While IPEDS does not track enrollment or completions by student age, by identifying the largest programs at schools with heavy populations of adult learners, we can explore the programs older students seek.

The two charts below highlight the programs with the most completions at seven institutions with high populations of adult learners and the programs that are growing the fastest. It is an interesting mix of programs, with General Business being by far the most popular program. Some smaller business-related programs are among the fastest-growing programs. 

Among the fastest-growing programs, health-related programs are popular, as are computer science, cybersecurity, several education-related programs, and Criminal Justice.

Top 10 Programs By Undergraduate Completions - 2021 (Select Campuses* with More than 75% Students Aged 25+)

Fastest-Growing Undergraduate Programs By Percent Growth (CAGR) in Completions 2016 - 2021* (Select Campuses** with More than 75% Students Aged 25+)

Adult students offer an important opportunity for colleges and universities to bolster sagging undergraduate enrollment. Providing educational opportunities to adult students also has broader societal benefits. A well-educated adult population contributes to the overall economic development of society. It leads to a more skilled workforce, increased productivity, and higher standards of living. 

Identifying programs that will appeal to this important demographic can provide benefits not only to an institution but to the students themselves and the communities in which they live and work. 

Elaine Rowles


Elaine works with Gray’s education clients on strategic planning projects, program portfolio evaluations, program feasibility studies, price benchmarking, and research-intensive custom project work. She has performed in-depth analyses of existing programs and institutions, as well as assessed demand and employment opportunities for new and emerging programs.

About Gray DI

Gray DI provides data, software and facilitated processes that power higher-education decisions. Our data and AI insights inform program choices, optimize finances, and fuel growth in a challenging market – one data-informed decision at a time.

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