The Post-Pandemic New Adult Learner

Expected demographic trends — and an unexpected post-pandemic economy — are accelerating change in the adult-learning marketplace, where academic credit is no longer the only currency.

“We knew that higher education would change — we just thought we had a decade to do it,” says Jim Fong, chief research officer at University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA). “Degrees will be the gold standard, but not the only pathway.”

Why Adult Learning is Changing Now

Fong says the post-pandemic labor market is strangely complex. Of note:

  • Technology and automation are pushing workers out of jobs, especially men.
  • When schools closed, childcare fell to women, and millions left the workforce.
  • During The Great Resignation, historically high numbers of employees retired early. Others left for new jobs with higher wages or to improve how work fits into their life.

The mid-pandemic workforce exodus forced companies to raise wages, Fong says, so some learners are leaving school to take home bigger paychecks.

At the same time, undergraduate enrollment declined sharply — about one million learners dropped out during the pandemic. Overall, as many as 2.7 million students left the higher education pipeline over the last 12 years, Fong says.

But why? In part, there’s declining confidence in the need for a bachelor’s degree. Fong says younger workers value alternative credentials, such as badges or certificates.

Plus, he says, degrees are expensive. So, instead of paying tens of thousands for a degree, adult learners are watching to see which programs will be most valuable.

What Motivates the New Adult Learner

Most adult learners are looking to advance their careers or increase their salaries, according to UPCEA research. Others say they want to gain new skills or better themselves through education.

A few post-pandemic predictions, according to Fong:

  • Fewer male learners: Men are more likely to return to the workforce during the labor shortage to seize higher wages. About 75% of college dropouts during the pandemic were men.
  • Women are back: About 60% of current college enrollments are women. Many say they’re looking for education to build their long-term chances for pay equity. 
  • Returning retirees: Some of those pandemic-era early retirees may see their savings dwindle. If they decide to return to work and want to upskill first, Fong says that’s an opportunity for universities to retrain these age 50+ adult learners.

How to Build Trusted Relationships with Adult Learners

 Just like the new economic reality, today’s adult learners are complicated. They want trusted relationships and need support, Fong says. “You just can’t market the heck out of them and send them a viewbook,” he says. 

UPCEA thinks about three generations of adult learners. You can build relationships across generations through data-driven marketing and enrollment management strategies, Fong says. For example, when it comes to social media, you may need to use multiple platforms to reach them.

Generation Z/Young MillennialsMid-MillennialsOlder Millennial/Young Gen X
Age 18-26Age 27-34Age 35-45

Gen Z’ers spend the most time on social media, about 3 hours a day.

Gen Z women trust TikTok and Instagram, while Gen Z men look to YouTube and Facebook.

Like Gen Z, Mid-Millennials navigate both online videos and social media.

Older Millennials and Gen X’ers trust LinkedIn the most, but you might also reach them through Facebook. 

They prefer online videos to social media.

Know that today’s students are quick to share their experiences through social media, especially if they’ve had a negative experience, he says.

A few other notes about trusted media: 

  • Adult learners trust email. But because they have multiple email accounts and a short attention span, it can be challenging to get through to them, Fong says.
  • They don’t trust advertising. According to UPCEA, 61% of adult students considering continuing education said that a college or university website is the media source they trust the most.
  • Too many questions can be a turnoff. UPCEA research finds that when adult students inquire about a program, they’re only willing to answer four or five questions. 

Building New Pathways: Do’s and Don’ts

As of 2020, 68% of adult learners say they want to pursue non-degree programs, such as skills-based competencies and badges. As you consider whether these or other new pathways are right for your program, Fong suggests a few do’s and don’ts:


  • Don’t build and launch orphan online programs. Tie all programs to an occupational pathway.
  • Don’t do business based on old practices. Build programs around what works for today’s students.
  • Don’t lose students due to ineffective marketing or enrollment management. Use data and science to engage prospective students.


  • Talk to employers. Understand what they still value about degrees, then explore how your programs can innovate to meet market needs.
  • Create noncredit-to-credit pathways. Consider including project- or skills-based credentials, such as badges.
  • Unbundle degree programs. You might be able to repurpose existing content to create more value.
  • Create more on-and-off ramps to education. Allow students to “stack” courses and credentials toward advanced studies, such as a master’s program.

“We’ve got to be ready to provide more access and alternative credentialing,” Fong says. “We’re not going to get these students to spend $40,000 for a degree. We must get them to experience these smaller, bite-sized pieces.”

Questions about working with UW Continuum College to learn more about program options and marketing to adult learners? To find out more about innovations and resources you can use, contact your partner success lead (PSL).