Number of adult students falls

The recession forced many older adults to return to school to learn new skills

More young people are earning college degrees, while adult students seem to be flocking back to the workforce, according to new research from the National Student Clearinghouse

The number of U.S. residents earning an undergraduate degree reached 2.8 million in 2015, up 0.3% from 2012. The increase was completely attributed to degree attainment by students under age 25. Between 2012 and 2015, the number of graduates under age 25 grew by 5.4%, but that number fell by about 6.8% among adults 25 and older.

During that period, the number of students under 25 who earned their first degree increased by 4.3%, while falling 15.4% for adults 25 and older. 

Student services for adult undergraduate students

The fluctuation is associated with a historic boom in college enrollment that occurred during the recession, Mitchell says. During that period, a large share of older adults who had lost their jobs went back to school for the first time to learn a new trade, and many have since returned to the workforce.

The share of graduates who previously obtained a degree or certificate has also risen in recent years. The number of graduates who already had an undergraduate degree grew 12.4% between 2012 and 2015, while the number of first-time graduates fell 2.6% during that period.

Mitchell proposes the trend could be attributed to more people "bundling" their education by obtaining certificates, then associate degrees, then bachelor's degrees. He also hypothesizes that many people are dissatisfied with the returns on their previous degrees and are going back to school to improve their career prospects (Mitchell, Wall Street Journal, 3/11). 

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