@ Issue Paper No. 9 Adult Learners in Ontario Postsecondary Institutions

Executive Summary:

Adults Who Would Benefit Most from Education Are Least Likely to Participate

Adults with high literacy levels are three times more likely to participate in adult learning in Ontario than those with low literacy levels. As a result, those who would benefit most from further education are missing potential social and economic opportunities, including higher earnings and shorter unemployment periods. 

A new @Issue paper Adult Learners in Ontario Postsecondary Institutions by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) shows adult learners are a diverse group and experience different barriers and motivations than conventional students.

Project Description

Since becoming operational in 2007, HEQCO has conducted extensive research on PSE access and participation in Ontario. With the Provincial Government’s “Open Ontario Plan” aiming to raise the PSE attainment rate of Ontarians aged 25 to 64 to 70 per cent, understanding the complex issues surrounding those pursuing education after already entering the labour force is critical. Because of their untraditional pathways through PSE it is difficult to define and identify adult learners and there remains a lack of reliable data compared to other segments of the student population. 

This @Issue paper summarizes existing research findings for Ontario to date. 


Currently, 43 per cent of Ontarians between the ages of 16 and 65 have literacy levels insufficient to successfully handle the increasing demands of the emerging information and knowledge economy. With continued advancements in technology and the constantly changing skill requirements needed in the modern workforce, even many well-educated and employed adults are finding it necessary to pursue new skills and upgrade existing ones.

The most common barrier for adult learners is finding time to schedule education around family and work commitments. As a result, adults are more likely to participate in education opportunities that are flexible, require a shorter time commitment and are relevant to their employment and career goals. Learners who can see the relevance of their education to their life or employment are far more successful in achieving their education objectives.

While financial barriers are less of a concern than for traditional students, adult learners still face complex fiscal issues. A higher proportion use non-governmental sources of financing as opposed to government student loans and this may be an indicator that the current public financial aid system is not meeting the needs of adult learners. Some efforts are underway to begin addressing this issue. Additionally, many adult learners receive support from their employer for their education; however this was much more concentrated among employees who already possessed significant skills and training. This pattern of employer support may serve to widen the gap between those who participate in education programs and those who would benefit most. An expansion of support and incentives for both learners and employers to encourage widespread participation may lead to more equitable engagement.

In recent years, the Ontario government has made adult education an area of emphasis, creating an Adult Education Policy Unit in the Ministry of Education in 2006 and the Ministers’ Committee on Adult Education in 2008. Currently, the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities hosts, and continues to develop content for, a web page focused on the needs of adult learners in the province.

This @Issue paper was written by Angelika Kerr, research analyst, Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.