Working Adults Have Unique Motivations for Learning and Going Back to School

Kassandra is a single mom with two girls. She never had the opportunity to finish high school and graduate with her class.

Kassandra was always a hard worker and wanted more for her life and her children. She knew that education could be her ticket to a better life, so when offered the chance to finish her high school diploma through a flexible online program, she took it. She has found her voice, taken her life into her own hands, and is no longer allowing other people to determine her destiny. With the support of her best friend and her coach at Guild, she was reminded of what is possible — and she earned her diploma.  Though receiving her high school diploma was important, the aspiration to provide a better life for her daughters is what motivated her to get there.

Kassandra’s story is instructive to how we work at Guild. We’re trying to help improve the understanding of working adult learners like Kassandra. Their motivations, demographics, and challenges are unique to the “traditional” student and require deliberate solutions and opportunities. 

Something most people don’t understand is that working adults are the new traditional studentWorking adults are the fastest-growing demographic in postsecondary education. Understanding their motivations and needs is vital — for them, of course, but also for all of us when we think about the future of work. 

What we have learned from our research at Guild is that adult learners like Kassandra are more outcome-oriented.  They have accumulated more life and work experience, which shapes their motivations and values, but adds unique challenges to going back to school. Working adults have limited time. They have personal and professional obligations to manage — and so they have specific goals when enrolling in a program. Even completing a flexible online program requires juggling work, family, and school. This all means there needs to be a return on the investment of time. 

This return on investment can come in many forms for working adult learners — including increased earning potential, learning and growing as a person, and inspiring their families.  

Dustin is another working adult learner, who, like Kassandra, took a leap of faith to go back to school. His motivation was to provide a great example to his young son. 

Working as an associate at Walmart, he was already in a labor-intensive role. After work, he gathered the spare energy he had to spend time with his son.  By adding school to his schedule, Dustin first felt overwhelmed because it took time away from spending time with family — even though his family, especially his son, was the very thing that motivated him to go back to school. 

Talking to his Guild coach about his struggles with time management, Dustin came up with a plan. 

He’d substitute the time he’d spend leisurely with his son after work, to time that they could do homework together. Now, Dustin is the first in his family to graduate college, and he hopes that having his son witness him reach his goals will encourage his son to pursue his own higher education in the future.

Graduating college while working and having a family takes a toll, but Dustin believes that to accomplish this you need a real, compelling reason to want it. For him, that was to instill in his son a hunger for learning and growth. 

Dustin and Kassandra are just two examples of what motivates the working adult learner. Advancing careers and making more money is a common theme they share, but oftentimes there is a more personal and meaningful motivation lying beneath the surface.  

What they show us, collectively, is that uncovering the “why” — is critical to shaping the future of work.

Written by Terrence Cummings

SVP of Student Services

Terrence is a data-driven executive with over 15 years of strategic, technical and operational experience in business development, strategy, product and marketing. He is dedicated to improving the experience of our students to drive superior academic and career outcomes.

Follow on: LinkedIn