Online Degrees in Adult Education

Article Sources


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It takes a special skill set to teach adult learners. While many adult learners may be motivated to earn a degree to compete in today's economy, adult learners can be faced with challenges that are unique to those returning to school after a short or long gap. Nevertheless, more adults are returning to school to pursue higher education, according to a 2018 Hechinger report. This means more teachers are likely to be required to teach the growing number of adult learners.

According to the College Board, a career in adult education can suit individuals who are interested in how adults learn and in motivating them to succeed. Access to online degree programs in adult education can make it easier for those who have a job or other commitments to earn a degree without having to give up those commitments.

Adult educators may teach adults the basics of reading, writing and math; prepare them to take high school equivalency examinations or teach English as a Second Language (ESL) to non-native speakers of the language. Some of the duties that adult educators may carry out include:

  • Helping students develop study skills
  • Planning and teaching lessons to help students gain their high school equivalent diploma
  • Monitoring students' progress and assessing their learning abilities
  • Connecting students to other resources they may need like job placement centers and mental health services
25 percent of today's higher education students are 25 years old or older, almost 42 percent work part-time, and more than 25 percent are parents.

Choose a degree that can help you meet your career goals

Online associate degree programs, while rare, may suit individuals wanting to explore the field of adult education. The BLS reports that most states require adult educators teaching literacy or high school equivalency courses to hold at least a bachelor's degree. Doctoral degree programs are designed to prepare students to administer and advance the latest approaches to adult learning. Read more about each of these degree levels in the sections below.

What can I expect to learn in an online associate degree program?

Online associate degree programs in adult education can give you a general overview of the field. You may learn to apply your vocational knowledge toward helping other adults expand their knowledge.

Typical duration: Up to two years of full-time study

General prerequisites: High school diploma or equivalent

Typical coursework: Curricula typically cover topics that help you understand how adults learn, teaching methods and best practices. Some courses you may take are:

  • Educational psychology
  • Introduction to the adult learner
  • Motivating adult learners
  • Teaching methods for adult learning

You may also have to complete supervised practicums to fulfill the requirements of your online associate degree in adult education.

Possible electives: Introduction to eLearning environments; eLearning design

What can I do after earning an associate degree?

Associate degrees may qualify you for entry-level roles in adult education in some states teaching basic adult literacy. You may also be able to apply your knowledge toward organizing development programs at corporate institutions. Additionally, an online associate degree in adult education may act as a stepping stone toward a bachelor's degree in adult education should you decide to earn a higher degree at a later stage in life.

What can I expect to learn in an online bachelor's degree program?

Undergraduate students can learn general teaching practices, as well as key distinctions between adult and childhood education. Bachelor's degree programs in adult education online are typically designed to give students the communication and analytical skills necessary to lead training sessions in both the classroom and the workplace.

Typical duration: Up to four years of full-time study

General prerequisites: High school diploma or equivalent

Typical coursework: Curriculum usually includes specific strategies for instructing adults, exploring the personal and professional needs and motivations of this increasingly diverse population along with general teaching practices. Curriculum can focus on effective instruction methods, trends and social issues in adult learning, and training program design and may include basic psychology as well. Some courses you may take are:

  • Adult education methods and procedures
  • Adult education assessment strategies
  • Learning styles fundamentals
  • Electronic instructional methods and delivery
  • Linguistically and culturally diverse learners

You may have to complete supervised practicums and a bachelor's thesis as a part of your online adult education degree program.

Graduate Certificates: Many colleges also offer graduate certificates in adult education online which can allow individuals who have bachelor's degrees, even in other fields, to obtain the qualifications they need to teach in an adult classroom environment.

What can I do after earning a bachelor's degree?

You may find you are eligible for a number of different job opportunities in adult education depending on the state you reside in. Some job roles include:

  • Adult education counselor
  • Adult education teacher
  • Adult literacy GED teacher
  • Corporate trainer
  • Training and development specialist

What can I expect to learn in an online master's degree program?

Online master's degree programs in adult education can equip students with the skills necessary to both administer adult training courses and instruct adults at a collegiate level.

Typical duration: Up to two years of full-time study

General prerequisites: Bachelor's degree

Typical coursework: Core curriculum is more focused than undergraduate study, offering advanced courses in adult learning theory, instructional design, and research methods. Coursework can promote the practical application of teaching knowledge by combining theoretical analysis with case study. Examples of topics include:

  • Multicultural perspectives in adult education
  • Adult education program development
  • Marketing adult education
  • Curriculum theory and instructional design
  • Program development in adult education

You may have to complete a capstone project or a master's thesis as a part of your online master's degree program in adult education.

Possible electives: Student advising and retention; historical and social issues in adult education; administration of adult education

What can I do after earning a master's degree?

Online master's programs in adult education can help to prepare students for careers in a variety of academic, community, and commercial organizations. Graduates with sufficient education experience may pursue teaching or administrative positions at community colleges or some online schools. In addition, graduates might find opportunities at major corporations, designing and implementing employee training programs. Some possible career opportunities include:

  • Director of distance learning
  • Training and development manager at higher education institutes

What can I expect to learn in an online doctoral degree program?

The highest degree in the discipline, a doctorate in adult education can help prepare students to administer and advance the latest approaches to adult learning. Many online colleges offer the degree program as either a doctor of education (Ed.D.) or a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.). While the two doctoral degrees are considered equivalent by the U.S. Department of Education, they're often very different in focus and study.

  • Ed.D. is a practitioner's degree primarily focusing on the practice of adult education in professional settings.
  • Ph.D. programs are more research-focused, emphasizing critical analysis of adult education theory and practice.

Online doctoral programs require candidates to both master the principles of adult education as well as contribute to the field through innovative research.

Typical duration: Three to seven years of full-time study

General prerequisites: Master's degree

Typical coursework: Online doctoral coursework and requirements can vary according to each student's goals, experience, and study focus. Core curriculum for the Ed.D. can be primarily focused on best practices in postsecondary adult instruction. Most online colleges offer advanced courses in problem solving, student assessment, and program design, along with professional focus classes like faculty administration. Ph.D. courses, on the other hand, push students to think broadly about adult learning, emphasizing critical analysis and research skills over instructional tools. Examples of topics include:

  • Leadership and ethics in adult and lifelong learning
  • Instructional adaptation and innovation in adult and lifelong learning
  • Policy and public governance of adult and lifelong learning programs
  • Faculty leadership
  • Evaluating the effectiveness of the educational process

Doctoral dissertations: The culmination of either program is a doctoral dissertation, an original contribution to the field of adult education that combines comprehensive study and applied research. Ph.D. dissertations usually offer original theoretical approaches to adult learning, while Ed.D. dissertations focus on the practical application of existing research.

What can I do after earning a doctoral degree?

An online doctorate degree program helps to prepare graduates to design and lead adult education programs in a variety of for-profit and nonprofit organizations, including higher education institutions, corporations, and workforce development centers. Graduates with teaching experience often pursue positions in higher education, such as assistant or associate professors, and teach courses in topics such as professional development or human resource training. While a master's degree is accepted for some academic leadership roles, primarily in community colleges, a doctoral degree is required for higher level administrative positions. Examples of job titles include:

  • Dean or vice president of student services
  • Directors/deans/vice presidents of off-campus centers
  • Financial aid directors of higher education institutes
  • Provost


Attending an accredited school can be important for a number of different reasons. Accreditation means that the education that the school can provide is able to meet the high standards required by the industry today. Accreditation can be programmatic or institutional, regional or national.

Attending an accredited school can play a big part in receiving financial aid and funding. Additionally, licensing laws may require you to have graduated from an accredited program in order to be eligible to receive your teacher's license.

The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) is the main accrediting body for teacher education programs in the United States.

Specializations in Adult Education:

You may be able to specialize in a particular aspect of adult education depending on your interests and experience at the master's degree level. It can be a good idea to determine the setting you want to work in (for example, a corporate office or a community college) and choose a specialization accordingly. Some specializations available are:

  • Adult literacy
  • Career and technical education
  • Community college and university instruction
  • ESL
  • Human resource development
  • Teaching and learning with technology

Rules and regulations for certifications and licensures can vary from state to state and the type of education you specialize in. Some states may require adult literacy teachers to hold a teaching certification while others may require them to hold certificates specific to adult education.

States may also require teachers for adult education to hold a bachelor's degree and to graduate from an accredited teaching program in order to qualify for a license. The U.S. Department of Education has a list of contacts for each state.

Corporate trainers do not necessarily need to be certified but many employers prefer employees with professional certifications. Some certifying bodies include:

Many online schools offer scholarships and financial aid to eligible students enrolled in adult education programs. It can be a good idea to check with your college's financial aid department to see if you qualify for any of their offerings. Similarly, check with your state's department of education. Additionally, you may find private organizations and foundations offering scholarships and grants to deserving students. We've listed a few below to help you get started in your search:

Additional Resources for those aspiring to work in the field of Adult Education:

After earning an online degree in adult education may be able to pursue employment opportunities at vocational schools, traditional universities, online colleges, workforce development centers, prisons and even major corporations.

The table below lists occupations related to the field along with job openings, average salary, total employment and job outlook for 2016 to 2026 using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Average Salary
Projected Job Growth
(2016 - 26)
Special Education Teachers, All Other36,800$62,5009.8%
Source: 2017 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov; 2016-26 State Occupational Projections, Projections Central, projectionscentral.com

Employment Statistics

Adult Basic and Secondary Education and Literacy Teachers and Instructors

Industries with the highest concentration of employment
  • Junior Colleges
  • Other Schools and Instruction
  • Technical and Trade Schools
  • Vocational Rehabilitation Services
  • Elementary and Secondary Schools
States with the highest level of employment
  • California
  • Texas
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Washington
Top-paying metropolitan areas
  • McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, TX
  • San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA
  • Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA
  • Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA
  • San Diego-Carlsbad, CA

Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

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