adult learner
Credit: Austin Community College/Flickr

When most Americans think of the words “college student,” they think of eighteen- or nineteen-year-olds, fresh out of high school. That’s outdated. As of 2018, nearly 30 percent of undergraduates are over the age of twenty-five. They are not arriving on campus with their parents in minivans. Instead, they are coming to college, or coming back to college, after several years or even decades in the workforce. Many still work: nearly half of all undergraduates are financially independent, and more than 80 percent of part-time students work. 

Traditional college rankings are not very helpful for these students. Working adults generally don’t care about average ACT scores or donation rates of alumni. They need information about what a college or university will do to make it easy for them to enroll, succeed, and finish their degrees. They care about things like affordability, support services, and classes that can fit around work and family obligations. They need to find out if a college is going to work for them as the person they are at this stage in their lives. 

This is a radical concept for many in traditional higher ed institutions, which essentially tell students, “If you want the privilege of attending our school, you need to change your life to make it work.” Colleges for adult learners flip that script and say, “We’ve figured out strategies and services that will help you fit learning into your life as it is right now.”

That is why the Washington Monthly ranks the best colleges for adult learners and why the magazine partnered with the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning to publish last year’s Never Too Late: The Adult Student’s Guide to College. These resources are intended to help adults find colleges that will meet them where they are. This year’s list of best-ranked colleges for adult learners taps national data to identify schools that make it easy for students to transfer, offer flexibility in their scheduling, provide services outside of banking hours, and make it possible for part-time students to succeed after they graduate.

The colleges that made the top spots suggest that many kinds of institutions can work for adults. Golden Gate University, in California, which takes the top spot for the fourth year running, has a clear mandate to serve adults. The twelfth-ranked Southern New Hampshire University provides online and self-paced options. Regional public institutions are also well represented. 

America’s most prestigious universities, by contrast, are not. Only one Ivy made the top fifty. While several public flagships do feature on our list, their actual enrollment rate of students age twenty-five or over is very low. 

Community colleges are ranked separately. Across the board, these schools make it easy for anyone to enroll, but the best ones for adults offer flexible scheduling and a range of career-focused options. The second-ranked two-year college, Wisconsin’s Lakeshore Technical College, offers blended, online, and a range of other distance learning formats, as well as ways to accelerate course completion. Meanwhile, thirteenth-ranked North Shore Community College, in Massachusetts, provides students with clear pathways from course work to careers and allows students to earn credit for what they have learned elsewhere. 

Adults who seek out these kinds of colleges aren’t the sort of students who have wealthy, well-connected parents pulling strings in the admissions process. They are students who make big sacrifices of their time and resources to pursue their goals. They deserve a different kind of college: the kind that designs programs and services to ensure that returning adults succeed.

Rebecca Klein-Collins

Rebecca Klein-Collins is the associate vice president of research and policy development at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.