Exploring “Uncharted Territory”: Considering Working Learners

Exploring “Uncharted Territory”: Considering Working Learners

Georgetown University’s Center on the Education and the Workforce recently released a report on a significant shift in postsecondary education: more than ever, people are working while they attend university and college. According to “Learning while Earning: The New Normal authors Anthony P. Carnevale, Nicole Smith, Michelle Melton and Eric W. Price, working learners constitute “nearly 14 million people – 8 percent of the total labor force and a consistent 70 percent to 80 percent of college students.” Here are a few key takeaways from the report, followed by our perspectives:

1) Although working learners between ages 16 and 29 tend to be typical undergraduates, 40% of whom work full time, working learners aged 30 to 54 are primarily workers who are upgrading a previous postsecondary credential.

Importantly, “mature working learners,” as they are called by the study, are by and large returning students. They are already dedicated learners who are seeking changes in their current career path. Adults who never enter the postsecondary system are left behind in our new, on-going educational system. 

2) Among all groups of working learners, there has been a shift to what the study’s authors call “career-oriented fields of study.”

“Even traditional liberal-arts colleges have created more career-specific majors – two-year degrees and certificates as well as baccalaureate and graduate programs,” the authors state. This change is not without its costs. Working learners, especially older ones, miss out on the broad learning opportunities offered by the traditional university model. As the authors show, “the vast majority of students are non-traditional learners who may have the inclination but lack the time and money to pursue the rich mix of general and specific coursework offered” by the traditional college experience.

3) College education remains a crucial indicator of employability for many, and the advantages of this education increase exponentially over a career – often leaving those without it behind.

The study states that “the use of education to signal an employee’s potential performance has increasingly become a crucial determinant of a lifetime opportunity. . . Academic preparation and learning on the job are sequential and cumulative, snowballing into increasing advantages over a lifetime of working and learning.”  This is especially true given that “the transition into a career is no longer linear” and carries the “expectation of lifelong learning and the continuous upgrading of skills.”

4) Many companies are helping their employees access higher education opportunities – but monetary benefits might not be enough for people who don’t already have college experience.

Milo Anderson, a working learner interviewed for the study, says that “There is a stigma to going back to college. It’s sort of frowned upon. I think what I’d like to see, as more of a general change in mindset, is more acceptance of the fact that education is a lifelong process. I’m going back to school and I can see people’s expression change, like, ‘Oh. so, you’re 31 and still not doing anything with your life?’ That’s the kind of negative mindset I’d like to see shifted.”  Working learners, those headed back to school or learning in other ways, need confidence and support to achieve their educational goals – especially if they feel they need to overcome a social stigma.


“Learning while Earning: The New Normal” is a fascinating look at the present landscape, and it makes the need to adapt for working learners clear and urgent. But what it leaves out is as important as what it includes.

Though lifelong learning might be a goal for many, not everyone has access to its benefits. We must find a way to include these learners in the educational process, to afford them learning opportunities that enrich their lives and their work. Further, the study’s emphasis on career-oriented learning makes clear that the opportunities provided by a more generalized curriculum – including the benefits of critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication – are lost to many who take part in post-secondary education.

But all is not hopeless. The study acknowledges that about 65 percent of the “$772 billion spent on postsecondary education and training… is spent outside of the formal postsecondary education system.” The authors call this a “huge uncharted territory” – and it is just that. Yet within this vast space, we believe that there are creative ways to reach those learners that postsecondary education leaves behind – and to fill in the gaps in their education. This is our goal at Books@Work. Although we do not address all issues facing all learners who have left the formal education system, we provide a meaningful and respectful venue to help adults continue their learning in rich, deep and varied ways, to help learners feel more confident and even to help professors better connect with “mature” and non-traditional working students.

Popular history has it that old maps include the words “here be dragons” (Hic sunt dracones) at their margins. And while several old maps picture dragons and other beasts (see the lower left corner of the Ortelius world map accompanying this post), in fact, only one map – the Lenox globe, owned by the New York Public Library – has such words. Nonetheless, the desire for dragons denoting unknown lands is an expression of what we know to be true: that the unknown is a space for wonder and possibility. This is what we feel toward the “uncharted territory” we are now exploring. We have gone in without a map, but we are beginning to fill in the edges.

Image: Abraham Ortelius, World Map Typvs Orbis Terrarvm, 1570, The Library of Congress, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

Further Reading:

How “Reading Between the Lines” Helps at Work (and Everywhere Else)

The Public Humanities can Thrive: 5 Ideas from the MLA

Through the Looking Glass: Wonderland at Work

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Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Hill is the Project Director, NEH for All at the National Humanities Alliance and former member of the Books@Work team.