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Adult Learners: An Afterthought of America’s Education System

Updated on November 13, 2014

by Amber Maccione

According to an article written by Frank DiMaria, the American Education System is failing the adult learning community, which includes people like immigrants, single mothers on welfare, and individuals without a high school diploma (DiMaria, 2007). The problem he states is that the goal of educating adult workers does not conjoin with the structures of obtaining a college degree (DiMaria, 2007). Research shows that there are 54 million adults without a college degree and 34 out of those who have had no college experience (DiMaria, 2007). Through Lumina Foundation for Education, research has been conducted to show seven areas of concern, risk factors of adult learners, and four areas where post-secondary schools can improve to better serve adult learners (DiMaria, 2007). The conclusion of the research done about the adult learner is that adult learners are just afterthoughts of the American Educational system, which is ironic since this group is at the most risk for failure since they have other responsibilities such as work, family, and social on top of earning a degree (DiMaria, 2007). The system that is in place is built for the traditional student and the adult students are not able to adapt because of their lack of resources (DiMaria, 2007).

Adult Learning

DiMaria’s article defines the adult learner as someone who is at risk of failure because the learner has to balance work, family, and social commitments alongside the pressures of completing assignments for a college education (DiMaria, 2007). He also states that the adult learner has fewer resources, needs guidance, and is poorly understood (DiMaria, 2007). Andragogy, on the other hand, paints a different picture of the adult learner. Andragogy states that there are six principles that make up the adult learner: they are internally motivated and self-directed, they bring life experiences and knowledge into the classroom, they are goal and relevancy oriented, they are practical, and they like to be respected (Merriam, Caffarella, Baumgartner, 2007). Both paint a different view of the adult learner with one being focused on the adult learner who needs someone to walk them through the college experience and the other as painting them as self-sufficient and self-directed in their learning.


Although DiMaria does base his thoughts on research conducted, it seems that his research is one sided in that it looks into the lower socioeconomic and minority groups for the adult learner, whereas, androgogy looks at middle to upper class white America. Therefore, both are correct. It is like having five blind men feel an elephant. Each one will have a different consensus because they are not seeing the elephant as a whole but only by the area they feel. There are many adult learners, therefore, there cannot be a set of rules that helps us understand them completely. The lesson as DiMaria states is that there is “no typical adult learner” (DiMaria, 2007). Through researching each group of adult learners, we are able, like the blind men, to start to understand each type of adult learner and how to better assist them. Although DiMaria’s article says that America’s educational system is failing the adult learner, colleges and universities are proving that wrong as more and more adults are entering post-secondary schools and these schools are fulfilling their needs with helping them get credits to be promoted at work and also classes online, on weekends and evenings, and also hybrid to help fit the adult learners busy and complex schedules.

Do you feel adult education seems to be more of an afterthought within the American educational system?

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DiMaria, F. (2007, Sep 10). Adult learners: Mostly misunderstood and underserved. The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education,17, 15-17. Retrieved from

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© 2014 Amber


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