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Timothy Slaper
Indiana Business Research Center

Carol Rogers
Indiana Business Research Center

George Vlahakis
University Communications

Last modified: Thursday, October 20, 2011

IU study: Non-traditional students can expect notable wage increase if they continue their studies

Oct. 20, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- According to a new Indiana University research study, those over the age of 25 who even modestly continue their education past high school can expect to receive a notable increase in wages.

Researchers at the Indiana Business Research Center at IU's Kelley School of Business found that adult students -- those who enroll in postsecondary institutions when they are 25 years or older - earned $1,000 more in annual wages after attempting 25 to 36 college credit hours, compared to those who attempted fewer than 12 college credit hours.

The same study found that those frequently called "non-traditional students," who attempted 37 to 48 credit hours also earned, on average, $1,000 more in annual wages. Those who attempted 49 to 60 credit hours achieved even higher wages gains -- $2,300 more on average -- compared to adult students attempting fewer than 12 credit hours.

The report, "The Importance of Being Educated: Wage Benefits for Indiana's Adult Students," was done by the IBRC as part of a Lumina Foundation grant. The IBRC researchers used data from the Indiana Workforce and Education Intelligence System (IWIS). IWIS data were instrumental in tracking the wage differences of adult students based on their level of educational attainment and pursuit.

Researchers found that annual wage gains also depended upon the student's program of study. Adult students who were industrial arts and consumer services majors and pursued 25 to 36 credit hours earned, on average, about $5,100 more per year than those who attempted fewer than 12 college credit hours. Other programs of study were not as rewarding. Adult students in most other academic programs earned less than the $1,000 average bump in annual wages resulting from attempting 25 to 36 hours.

According to recent statistics reported by the Census Bureau, 49.2 percent of U.S. adults 25 years of age and older have opted out of continuing their education past high school. In Indiana, 55.3 percent have opted out. The vast majority of adult students begin their postsecondary pursuit at community colleges, and recent research has focused on the challenges and successes of these two-year institutions.

"Relatively little is known about the unique educational experiences of adult students in Indiana," explained Timothy Slaper, director of economic analysis at the IBRC. "The educational experiences and employment outcomes of adult students can differ dramatically from those of traditional college-aged students.

Tim Slaper

Timothy Slaper

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"Compared to students who enroll in college soon after high school, a significantly greater percentage of those who start college after age 24 never complete their degree," Slaper added. "These older students may want to advance their education, but encounter a variety of barriers -- for example, the need to financially support a family -- that may prevent them from doing so."

The Indiana study replicates another project done in the state of Washington that identified a "tipping point," or an academic threshold, beyond which adult students at community and technical colleges experienced significant economic wage gains.

"The goal of this study was to find the tipping point for Hoosier adult students and then estimate the economic benefits that accrue to adult students once they reach that threshold," Slaper said.

Like in other states, the vast majority of Hoosier adult students begin their postsecondary pursuit at community colleges. The IU project studied a three-year cohort of adult students attending Indiana's public two-year institutions. Of the 20,263 students included in the study, 89 percent were enrolled at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana and 11 percent were enrolled at Vincennes University.

Of all the students who first enrolled at Indiana's public two-year institutions between the fall of 1999 and spring of 2002, more than 43 percent met the age and employment conditions for the research. Western Governors University (WGU) Indiana did not exist during the period studied.

Researchers also found value in associate degrees. An adult student who earned an associate degree gained, on average, about $4,100 per year more in wages than those who attempted less than 12 college credits. Again, the benefits of earning an associate degree depended on the program of study.

Only those completing degrees in health and industrial arts and consumer services received an unequivocally higher boost in wages than those who attempted less than 12 college credits, although completers majoring in computers and math also tended to earn more. Health majors gained, on average, $9,900 more per year in wages, while industrial arts and consumer services majors gained $7,000 more annually than those who attempted less than 12 college credits.

"This study finds that non-traditional adult students who attend Indiana's public postsecondary institutions for at least one year can boost their earnings," Slaper summarized. "In addition, earning a credential -- an associate degree in this case -- also provides a substantial boost in annual earnings.

"Enrolling in a limited number of college-level courses, however, does not appear to provide much benefit in terms of earnings."

More about the study:

  • While a significant number of Indiana's adult students did hit the tipping point or earned a degree, a vast majority did not. Nearly eight out of 10 students in the cohort that started to take courses stopped after attempting less than a year's worth of college credits and received no credential.
  • While the ratio of women to men in the cohort was similar for most racial categories -- close to a 45/55 ratio -- African American students were not so evenly divided. Black female students outnumbered males nearly two to one. Among Native Americans, the ratio was 54-to-46, in favor of women.
  • The median age of the group studied was 36, with 46 percent of the adult students between 25 and 34 years old. Students between the ages of 25 and 29 comprised the largest group -- more than one-fourth of the cohort.
  • The Indiana study did not include adults still working on their high school diploma or equivalent. Adult Hoosier students with GED diplomas, however, were included and comprised about 10 percent of the cohort.

IWIS is a partnership of the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, the Indiana Department of Education and the IBRC. For more information, contact project director Carol Rogers at or research director Tim Slaper at report is available online at and also on the Center's website at