Adult learners are growing in number, but not all of them thrive in the college environment.  

What makes an adult learner a successful student? Here are nine specific characteristics that make it more likely for adult students to achieve their studies. 


Who Are Adult Learners?  

Students in a classroom at MSU Denver.These are students – typically 25-years-old or older – who do not go to college right out of high school. Rather, they take some time to work or even start a family before pursuing higher education. They can also be students who started college, then had to take a step back to pursue other responsibilities for a while before returning to school. 

Adult learners are increasing in number on campuses throughout the nation. Online education platforms and flexible programming from many of today’s colleges and universities have made earning a degree possible for more people than ever before. Today, over 40% of college and university students are age 25 or older, even some well past middle-age who are returning to school to pursue their dreams. 


What Are the Characteristics of Adult Learners? 

As more and more adults return to school, campuses are working to understand what makes them tick and how to help them find success in the ever-changing college environment. 

Among those students who do find success, these nine characteristics are what propel them to thrive. If you have them or think you could develop them, you are in a good position to consider returning to school. 


  1. Not Afraid to Ask for Help/Support

One of the things that makes adult learners a success is they are not afraid to ask for help when they need it. Older college students have learned that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, and it is often the best chance of finding success. Also, because they are more settled on why they are going to school than younger students, they are highly motivated to make the most out of it, knowing that sometimes, they will need help to do that. 


  1. Open Minded

Adult learners have seen a lot of the world and they know that one-size-fits-all answers don’t always work. For that reason, successful adult learners are often more open-minded than younger students or their less successful peers. 

This is one characteristic that sets apart successful adult learners from unsuccessful ones Sometimes, to their detriment, older students are set in their ways and resistant to change. Having their personal values and preconceptions challenged by teachers can be difficult. Those who succeed are those who are able and willing to change. 


  1. Results Oriented

Adult learners want to see results. Being results-oriented means learners are often focused on those activities that will point them toward their larger goal. Because of this, they rarely take electives that aren’t applicable to their goal and will focus their energy on more relevant courses. They work hard at their education as long as they see the results of that work. 


  1. Drive/Passion to Learn

Adult learners’ goals are often very specific, giving them a deep passion to learn what they need to learn to achieve them. They have already spent some time in the workforce and know the skills and knowledge they lack to succeed in their chosen career path. They may have decided on a career path they love but need additional education to get started. Because they are passionate about their career, adult learners are driven to add to their knowledge and skills. 


  1. Ability to Use the Resources Around You

Older students are aware of the resources available to them, within the community as well as on campus and they know how to use these resources as they achieve their educational goals. For example, an adult learner is more likely to have community contacts they can call if they need to interview someone for a class project or need to set up an internship to complete their educational requirements; they are less reluctant to tap into those resources. 


  1. Strong Listening Skills

Because adult learners take time off from school before going to college, they learn interpersonal skills that some fresh-out-of-high-school students lack. The ability to listen to others is one of those skills. Good listening skills help with taking in lectures as well as listening to and learning from classmates and peers, which makes adult learners successful. 


  1. Being Responsible

Adult life brings many responsibilities. Students who have lived on their own and have been in control of their own bills and finances for a while learn how to be responsible. Being responsible in personal and professional life makes it easier to be responsible in your education as well. 


  1. Goal Oriented

Adult learners typically go back to school because they have a specific goal. This means they want to see results from their studies (see #3 above). Keeping track of positive results as part of an overarching destination is a key differentiator for many adult students. Having a goal in mind keeps the student motivated, even when the balance of life and professional work becomes difficult. 


  1. Resilient

Adult learners don’t give up easily. Because they have a goal top of mind and are pushing for a specific result, they are not going to let a little bit of hardship derail their efforts. Many adult learners have already started college and had to take a step back for a while. Returning to school shows that they have tenacity and gumption, which translates into resiliency when the going gets tough. 


Best Practices for Adult Learners

If you are considering going back to school, you will want to learn to manage your time well. Set aside a specific area to study so you can focus on your schoolwork when in that space. Make sure you are careful about how many classes you take at any one time because you do not want to over-exert yourself. Finally, choose a program that offers flexibility and the training in your career field that you need. 

Metropolitan State University of Denver has over 90 degree programs for undergraduate students and 10 graduate programs — all of which caters to the needs of adult students. We are one of the area’s most innovative universities with several flexible programs that work well for our adult students. From online classes to campus-based programs with flexible schedules, you will find something to help you achieve your goal with MSU Denver.  


Reach out to an admissions counselor today to start planning your degree and take that next step toward career advancement with a completed college degree. 


It’s never too late to get where you’re going – just ask Travis Broxton, who received his degree in photography at 72-years-old.