October 4, 2021 – Education

Council for Adult and Experiential Learning to Provide an Enhanced Understanding of Adult Learner Preferences


In 2020, nearly 40 percent of high school graduates decided not to go to college. More than 16 million people aged 16 to 24 were not in school at all—about 44 percent of Americans in that age group. These people are among those struggling the most in the COVID economy.  

What is keeping these adults from entering postsecondary education programs? What are the programs and tools that could help them take advantage of the learning opportunities they might need to reach their full potential?  

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) is examining those questions, which are especially important given the fact that nearly half of postsecondary learners are aged 22 or older and more than 20 percent are older than 25. With support from the Charles Koch Foundation (CKF) and Strada Education Network, CAEL will conduct research on the barriers faced by adults who have never enrolled in postsecondary education. It also will identify innovations that have successfully addressed those barriers.   

Three-quarters of adults who want to build new skills prefer to do so outside of a four-year institution. CAEL’s research will provide a new understanding of these learners’ preferences — a critical step to building innovative, individualized models that meet their needs,” said Charles Koch Foundation Executive Director Ryan Stowers.  

CAEL’s study, launched in May, has convened 10 top-performing programs in the adult learning space (read more about these program here) to analyze, inform, and amplify comprehensive models that help adult learners succeed. CAEL is looking at solutions like certificates, badges, and stackable credentialing that help adult learners access new skills in order to take advantage of rewarding employment opportunities. 

Study participants include higher education institutions and nontraditional education and training providers that use short-term learning experiences to prioritize adult degree completion and/or work-relevant training. The 10 institutions in the study are participating in focus groups, surveys, and data analysis. They each have majority adult learner populations and established processes for measuring learning outcomes and post-completion job placement and earnings. CAEL will integrate its research findings into a Framework for Effectively Serving Adult Learners that will provide roadmaps for other institutions that aim to expand adult learner enrollment and promote lifelong learning.  

CAEL President Earl Buford said, “Adult learner success is an ethical and an economic imperative.” 

The Framework study also will update CAEL’s Principles for Effectively Serving Adults. Since their introduction in 1998, the Principles have guided education providers and state systems committed to an inclusive model of education that meets the diverse needs of post-traditional learners amid ever-shifting education and employment landscapes.  

Read CAEL’s press release announcing CKF’s support.  

The Charles Koch Foundation supports educational opportunities that respect the dignity of all learners, foster a diversity of approaches, and are open to the free flow of ideas and innovation. Learn more about how we help all learners unlock their potential.