Adult Learner Theory & Research

In AY18 9.3% of the degree-seeking students at WSU were 25 or older, and 24.7% of the visiting and non-degree seeking students fell into the same category.

We have experienced and average of 2.2% growth per year of adult learners over the past 10 years.

As we see an increase in the number of adult learners at WSU, we feel it is important to understand their needs and ask them about their experience on our campuses so that we are ready and able to help them traverse their educational journey successfully.


The seven characteristics of post-traditional students defined by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) are students that:

  1. Have delayed enrollment into post-secondary education
  2. Attend part-time
  3. Are financially independent of parents
  4. Work full-time while enrolled
  5. Have dependents other than a spouse
  6. Are a single parent
  7. Lack a standard high school diploma

It is important to note that any one or any combination of these characteristics can significantly play into a student’s expectations and needs from an institution of higher learning.

It is also important to consider that while a student may not be 25 years or older, they may have non-traditional student needs because they meet one or more of the above characteristics. 

Over the years, ACE has conducted surveys, focus groups, call campaigns and external research to get a better sense of what adult learners want in their college experience and how well WSU is delivering.

Consistently we find that adult learners are looking for:

  • Ease of transferring credit from institution to institution
  • Flexible course, certificate and degree programs
  • Online, hybrid, evening, cohort and competency-based learning opportunities
  • Credit for Prior Learning (CPL) and less time to degree completion
  • Flexible financial aid policies and scholarship opportunities that recognize the unique struggles and circumstances faced by many post-traditional students
  • Adult friendly places and faces


The above-mentioned findings only scratch the surface in painting a picture of what adult students prioritize and value as they pursue post-secondary education.

Some professional organizations that dedicate their efforts and work to advocating for and educating others about adult learner trends, needs and preferences include:

If you have an interest in learning more about adult learner theory so that you can better advocate for and serve this population at WSU, please contact us.

We would be happy to advise on what professional development opportunities may exist that would give you a deeper understanding of national trends and best practices in the field of andragogy.


Winona State is active in applying this knowledge and advancing our internal practices to better align with adult learner priorities. Two degree programs with which ACE works very closely exemplify this responsiveness to our internal and external research.

The Individualized Studies program offers mature students a great deal of flexibility and allows for intellectual growth in a variety of academic areas that align with individual interests and personal/professional goals.

ACE provides advising services and advocacy for this interdisciplinary program that offers both a Bachelor of Arts and a minor degree option.

The Healthcare Leadership & Administration bachelor completion degree was the first entirely online bachelor program at Winona State. ACE was instrumental in helping to develop and grow this program and still contributes to the strategic direction of the program and provides advising support.

The Winona State University-Rochester campus programs serve more adult students than traditional students. A variety of hybrid, online and evening course options are offered on the Rochester campus to meet more complex scheduling needs, and the Path to Purple tracks make transfer easy.

While ACE does not directly influence or advise on Rochester programming efforts geared toward adult learners, collaborations between the two departments are not uncommon because of the complimentary nature of our work.