Adult Learners By The Numbers

Letter from the Chief Economist

Published on Jul 22, 2022

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Bledi Taska

Welcome to the Letter from the Chief Economist.

Moving Up and Moving Forward

There are close to six million adult learners in the US, making up over a third of the total student body. But more importantly for colleges and universities, they are also the largest pool of potential students: there are 96 million adults in the US with a high school degree and no further education, compared to 3.6 million high school graduates each year. Those in higher education hoping to increase enrollment have an opportunity to find a major source of new students in adult learners.

But surprisingly, we know very little about them. Most of the available education data focuses on traditional learners. In fact, it’s difficult to even find a commonly-accepted definition of “adult learners.” Knowing the characteristics of this population, identifying the industries and occupations they’re coming from, and defining what success looks like for them is extremely important for enabling their success—especially for education institutions struggling with plummeting enrollment rates. 

That’s exactly what Lightcast has set out to do with our new research report, out today, called Moving Up and Moving Forward: Advancing Economic Mobility for Adult Learners. Based on our database of more than 125 million career profiles, we examined the real-world educational choices and professional pathways of adult learners. 

Here are five highlights from our findings:

  1. Adult learning pays off 

Those who return to higher education are 22% more likely to achieve upward mobility, and their average salary increase is over 140% greater than their peers who don’t go back to school.

2. The for-profit/non-profit split 

Adult learners from public institutions have greater mobility gains than those in private or for-profit institutions. With the expansion of remote learning during the pandemic, public higher education institutions have the chance to become more competitive in recruiting adult learners.

3. An advantage in associate’s degrees 

Associate’s degrees from certain technical fields such as engineering and health grant more upward mobility to adult learners than bachelor’s degrees in more general fields like business or psychology. 

4. Gains across the board

Adult learners see a rise in mobility across a wide range of industries. In some cases, mobility is even higher in fields like Manufacturing, Utilities, or Construction than in other industries traditionally thought of as upwardly mobile, like Information or Health Care.

5. Demographic opportunities

The groups that see the greatest likelihood of achieving upward mobility after returning to school are actually those who enroll less frequently than others and are underrepresented in our data. This presents a growth opportunity not just for those individuals, but for institutions reaching out to potential students.

The methodology of this report was more of a challenge than past Lightcast research has been, which makes it all the more rewarding to have solved those problems and release our findings. Determining an accurate and useful definition of adult learners was one such issue; so was figuring out how education providers can best apply the data. Lastly, we also had to figure out how to define success for the adult learner community without having access to real compensation data (see also this paper for a similar approach). After bringing all of those together, we were able to see a much clearer picture of what adult learners can anticipate and build for in their careers.


Ultimately, we’re proud to have been able to support adult learners through understanding their experiences and outcomes much more clearly, and in doing so, we can enable opportunity for individuals and higher education institutions alike. Read the full report here

In The Papers

Continuing on the topic of higher education, this week I want to highlight one of my favorite papers by Song Ma and Barbara Biasi: “The Education-Innovation Gap” (available here or here).

In it, the paper’s authors study the distance between the content of higher education compared to the true frontier of knowledge. To do that, they examine data from 1.7 million syllabi and 20 million academic articles, then use AI natural language processing techniques to determine and define the “education-innovation distance/gap.” 

They find that higher education courses differ greatly in their coverage of frontier knowledge and that instructors play a big role in shaping the content of their courses. More selective and better-funded institutions offer courses with lower gaps, but these schools also enroll fewer disadvantaged students, which leads to even higher inequality through different quality of education. 

Finally , their most important finding (according to a very biased labor economist) is that the dissemination of frontier knowledge through higher education courses is strongly and positively related to students’ labor market outcomes and their ability to innovate in the future. 

Essentially, the more a course is aligned with the frontier of knowledge, the better the outcome for students. And just like the Moving Forward report shows, good data can be a vital tool in making those outcomes happen. 

Until next week,

Bledi Taska

Lightcast Chief Economist

Welcome to the Letter from the Chief Economist.

At Lightcast, our mission is to unlock mobility and opportunity for every employee, student, and community around the world.

I lead a team of economists and data scientists who look every day at our billions of data points in order to find meaningful insights and human stories. We believe those insights and stories can drive change, and every week, I’ll be sharing some of the highlights from our research.

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