Is college a good investment for adult learners?

Dr. Rhiannon Pickin
Dr. Rhiannon Pickin

Rhiannon has previously worked as a copywriter and has a PhD in crime history. She loves horror games, pub quizzes and her two adopted cats.

Is college a good investment for adult learners?

    Adult learners are more likely to have work and family commitments.

    Online colleges and schools with open admissions make it easier for them to access higher education.

    These colleges can be a good investment for adult learners but there are fewer of them to choose from.

    Schools with on-campus learning and admission requirements tend to provide the best economic outcomes but are likely most suitable for adult learners with more flexible schedules.

    Going to college as an adult learner can be daunting, but completing a first or second bachelor’s degree later in life is, in most cases, worth it. However, as with college at any age, the economic benefits of your degree will depend on the school you choose. (That’s our modus operandi and reason for being at Degreechoices.)

    What is an adult learner?

    The National Center for Education Statistics calls adult learners “non-traditional undergraduates” and defines them as being over the age of 24. This age is used as a surrogate to capture the main features that distinguish adult learners from younger college students – work, family, and other responsibilities that can interfere with their college education.

    We’ll use the term adult learner to refer to undergraduate students aged 24 and over. To analyze the economic benefits of college for adult learners, and to determine which schools are best for adult learners, we’ll focus on the 306 4-year schools in our database with an average student age of 24 and over. We’ll refer to those schools as non-traditional colleges.

    What do adult learners need from their college?

    Compared to “traditionally aged” college students who are in most cases fresh out of high school, adult learners are more likely to be:

    • married
    • financially independent
    • part-time (less than 4 classes a semester)
    • returning (after an enrolment break or for a second degree)

    In our school analysis, we’ll refer to these as non-traditional student features and work under the assumption that schools with many non-traditional student features offer additional support and convenience to adult learners (and hence attract many older students).

    4-year non-traditional colleges

    Average age: 28

    Over age 25: 52%

    Married: 26%

    Financially independent: 65%

    Part-time students: 36%

    Returning students: 65%

    Number of schools: 306

    All 4-year colleges

    Average age: 22

    Over age 25: 18%

    Married: 9%

    Financially independent: 26%

    Part-time students: 14%

    Returning students: 40%

    Number of schools: 1,407

    Online programs and open admissions attract adult learners

    We can assume that adult learners require more flexibility from their college program in order to accommodate additional personal and professional responsibilities.

    Online degrees or hybrid learning options allow adult learners to fit their studies around their work and family life. Open admissions colleges accept anyone who applies, which is helpful for adult learners who don’t have the time or inclination to go through a lengthy college application process.

    By analyzing non-traditional colleges according to their learning methods and admission policies, we can identify the best options for adult learners based on these averages:

    • percentages of non-traditional student features
    • graduation rates
    • earnings 3 years after graduation
    • cost
    • economic score

    How we compare value

    We use these 3 key metrics to analyze the return on investment offered by different colleges:

    • Payback gives you information about how valuable a degree from a particular college is compared to how much it will cost to study there.
    • EarningsPlus tells you how much more graduates at a certain school earn compared to an average or “benchmark”.
    • Economics score (ES) combines payback and EarningsPlus into a single figure – the lower, the better.

    For more details, see our methodology.

    Both online and on-campus programs are good investments for adult learners

    The average graduate earnings, graduation rates, and economic scores of online and on-campus colleges are very similar.

    Non-traditional colleges with online or hybrid programs

    Graduation rate: 49%

    Cost: $65,517

    Earnings: $43,563

    Payback: 4.24

    Economic score: 4.74

    Non-traditional colleges with on-campus programs

    Graduation rate: 52%

    Cost: $77,581

    Earnings: $43,035

    Payback: 4.63

    Economic score: 4.80

    Colleges with online programs are cheaper

    Online and hybrid programs cost around $12,000 less on average despite similar earning statistics.

    Online colleges have more non-traditional student features

    Online or hybrid learning schools have significantly higher percentages of all non-traditional student features compared to on-campus schools, indicating that adult learners gravitate towards online programs.

    Accreditation is key

    If you decide on an online study program, make sure you apply to accredited online colleges. This will reassure future employers that your online degree is certified.

    The average age at online non-traditional schools is higher (32 versus 27), with 82% of students over the age of 25, compared to just 45% at on-campus non-traditional colleges. Therefore, doing an online program as an adult learner may mean you are more likely to study with people in similar life circumstances.

    Non-traditional colleges with online or hybrid programs

    Average age: 32

    Over age 25: 82%

    Married: 43%

    Financially independent: 91%

    Part time students: 41%

    Returning students: 84%

    Non-traditional colleges with on-campus programs

    Average age: 27

    Over age 25: 45%

    Married: 22%

    Financially independent: 59%

    Part time students: 35%

    Returning students: 61%

    On-campus learning might be a good choice though if you want this type of experience as an adult learner and have the time to travel to college and sit in live lectures.


    Graduates from online and on-campus non-traditional colleges have similar average earnings, but online programs tend to be more affordable and adult learners seem to prefer them.

    Graduates from open admissions colleges pay less tuition but have lower salaries

    Only 66 colleges for non-traditional students have open admissions and you’re more likely to find private colleges with open enrollment policies.

    Number of colleges for non-traditional students by admission policy

    PieChart Data
    enter in the editor the amount of columns you want to show
    and their values.

    We can also see from their higher percentages of non-traditional student features that open admissions colleges are a popular choice for adult learners:

    Non-traditional colleges with open admissions

    Average age: 31

    Over age 25: 75%

    Married: 35%

    Financially independent: 84%

    Part time students: 33%

    Returning students: 74%

    Non-traditional colleges with admission requirements

    Average age: 27

    Over age 25: 40%

    Married: 21%

    Financially independent: 55%

    Part time students: 37%

    Returning students: 60%

    Similar to schools with online programs, colleges with open enrollment are more likely to have adult learners who are older, married, and financially independent. This makes sense if you’re spending most of your time either at work or raising a family and don’t want to spend time working on a full college application.

    Colleges with admission requirements are a better investment

    Despite open admissions colleges being more popular among adult learners, schools with admissions requirements are generally a better investment. This is because their graduates earn an average of $6,000 more. Colleges with enrollment requirements also successfully graduate about 9% more students than open admissions schools.

    Colleges with open admissions

    Graduation rate: 45%

    Cost: $68,579

    Earnings: $39,920

    Payback: 4.86

    Economic score: 5.11

    Colleges with admission requirements

    Graduation rate: 54%

    Cost: $83,773

    Earnings: $45,922

    Payback: 4.36

    Economic score: 4.51

    Open admissions colleges still have their benefits

    In addition to saving time on testing and application requirements, you’re also more likely find students who are similar to you at these open admissions schools, suggesting they may offer more specific support structures for adult learners. Finally, open admissions schools are, on average, $15,194 cheaper.


    If you have the time to fully commit to putting in a good college application, it could pay off in the long run with higher graduate earnings. Open admissions colleges have lower graduate salaries, but they’re also a cost-effective and time-saving option for busy adult learners.

    Open admissions are the best option for online learners

    Of the 2 types of online colleges – open admissions and those with admission requirements – open admissions provide the better return on investment.

    This makes them the best choice for non-traditional students who are specifically looking for programs with online or hybrid learning options. However, these schools also represent just 5% of the non-traditional college landscape, so there may be fewer programs to choose from. Graduation rates are also somewhat lower at open admissions online colleges.

    Non-traditional colleges with open admissions and online or hybrid programs

    Graduation rate: 47%

    Cost: $57,695

    Earnings: $44,112

    Payback: 3.65

    ES: 4.14

    Non-traditional colleges with admission requirements and online or hybrid programs

    Graduation rate: 53%

    Cost: $86,152

    Earnings: $42,114

    Payback: 5.82

    ES: 6.31

    Colleges with admission requirements are best for non-traditional students who want to study on campus

    Colleges with admission requirements are the best option for non-traditional students who want to do on-campus programs. This is because their graduates earn higher wages on average, giving them a better return on their investment even though tuition is more expensive.

    Colleges with open admissions and on-campus programs

    Graduation rate: 46%

    Cost: $70,170

    Earnings: $39,307

    Payback: 5.04

    ES: 5.25

    Colleges with admission requirements and on-campus programs

    Graduation rate: 55%

    Cost: $86,664

    Earnings: $46,095

    Payback: 4.30

    ES: 4.43

    The best colleges for non-traditional students

    If you’re an older non-traditional student with more family and work responsibilities, you could consider the following top 3 online colleges with open admissions:

    1. Grantham University, Kansas, private for-profit, ES: 0.88
    2. Columbia Southern University, Alabama, private for-profit, ES: 0.89
    3. Franklin University, Ohio, private not-for-profit, ES: 1.14

    However, one of these top 3 schools with on-campus programs and admission requirements might be a good fit if you’re an adult learner who has the time to submit a full application and attend in person:

    1. CUNY Lehman College, New York, public, ES: 0.43
    2. California State University – Dominguez Hills, California, public, ES: 0.89
    3. California State University – East Bay, California, public, ES: 1.48

    Final thoughts

    Overall, it is worth it for non-traditional students and adult learners to go to college. If you’re looking for online or hybrid learning programs, colleges with open admissions are the best investment. These schools are also more likely to have adult students with work and family responsibilities which means more students who are similar to you and likely better support for adult learners. However, if you’re looking to attend in person, colleges with admission requirements offer higher graduate salaries.

    Our college rankings can help you find schools that offer your preferred learning method and the best return on your educational investment. You can also check out our financial aid pages for information on how you can get money for college as an adult learner.

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