Online Master's Programs in Adult Education

The field of adult education continues to grow, providing employment opportunities for postsecondary teachers, corporate trainers, human resources specialists, and others who deliver educational services to nontraditional students. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Education reports that the number of students 35 and older enrolling in college through 2025 is projected to grow by 20%, compared to 13% for traditional 18-24 year old students.

A master's in adult education prepares graduates to teach adults in a variety of settings. This guide provides helpful information about earning a master's in adult education online, career options, and resources to support you as you enter the field.

Overview of an Online Master's Program in Adult Education

Specific requirements for online adult education master's programs vary by school; however, most programs require versions of the coursework listed below. In general, programs address how changes in adulthood affect learning, instructional strategies for adult learners, curriculum design, and assessment and evaluation.

Common Classes and Coursework

Foundations of Adult Education

Required of all students entering the master's program, this foundational course introduces methods and teaching strategies that promote learning and skill development among adult learners. The course connects theory, conceptual knowledge, and research to hands-on training and classroom simulations. Students also examine and evaluate various adult learning program models.

Assessment and Evaluation in Adult Education

Students analyze the purposes and limitations of assessment and evaluation practices used in diverse adult education settings. Topics include prevalent assessment and evaluation models, common standardized tests for adult learners, and alternative methods of assessment. The course addresses the specification of evidence, gathering and analysis of data, and presentation and dissemination of results.

Technology and Distance Learning in Adult Education

This course draws on theory and practice from multiple disciplines to examine how education in the workplace, higher education, and adult settings has been transformed by instructional and communication technology. Students receive training in distance learning models for adult learners and online curriculum design and development. The course also addresses the benefits and challenges of using technology and online course delivery with adult learners.

Program Development for Adult Learning Organizations

Adult education professionals working in postsecondary, community, and corporate environments must develop effective programming that meets the needs and expectations of adult learners. This course explores a variety of pedagogical approaches to adult learning, program planning theories, diversity among adult learner populations, and characteristics of successful program planning and curriculum development.

Research Methods in Adult Education

Students learn the methods used in social science and education research, with an emphasis on key concepts and applications used in research of adult development and learning. The course surveys quantitative and qualitative approaches, action-based analytical models, case studies, grounded theory, and auto/biography/narrative research. The course introduces students to critical, postmodern, and feminist research designs, and research ethics.

Skills You Will Gain

Most students enrolled in an online master's in adult education have received their undergraduate degrees in education or the liberal arts and sciences, where they acquired written and verbal communication proficiency, analytical skills, and basic training in technological and computer applications and software. A master's in adult education builds on these competencies and introduces students to the theories, methods, and strategies that apply specifically to adult learners.

Students learn to recognize and apply accessible and engaging strategies that motivate students

Teachers, trainers, and administrators who work with adult learners must develop a diverse repertoire of pedagogical skills and tools. An online master's in adult education introduces the personal and environmental factors that affect adult development and learning through the lifespan. Students also learn to recognize and apply accessible and engaging strategies that motivate students, meet their educational needs and expectations, and respect their individual and cultural differences.

The field of adult education increasingly relies on technological instruction; as a result, adult education teachers and trainers must be proficient in computer applications and web-based course delivery. Master's degree holders working in training and development apply their organizational, analytical, and research skills to program planning and curriculum design, as well as to the ongoing assessment and evaluation of the programs they administer.

Average Degree Length

While a bachelor's degree may open up some job opportunities in the adult education field, most positions require at least a master's degree. Online adult education master's degree programs are approximately 36 credits, and students can complete their degree in two years if taken full-time. However, several factors determine the length of time for degree completion.

Students can complete an online accelerated degree program in 12 or 18 months

One of the primary benefits of an online program is its flexibility. Students can complete an online accelerated degree program in 12 or 18 months, or, alternatively, take classes part-time over a longer period to accommodate work or family responsibilities. Some online programs offer classes year-round, while others use a hybrid format that combines distance learning with on-campus attendance. Additionally, a cohort-based education master's program requires students to take classes together as a group; in this model, students progress through degree requirements in a fixed course sequence. However, the degree may take longer to complete than asynchronously-delivered degrees.

Schools may also offer prior learning assessments, which can save students time and money by providing academic credit for previously acquired work experience. A thesis requirement or capstone experience may increase the time required for degree completion, as well. Finally, some adult education specializations within education master's programs may lead to state licensing, which requires learners to complete a student teaching requirement, further adding to the time needed to finish the degree.

How to Find a Top Program

An online degree may appeal to nontraditional students looking to shift careers, or professionals already working in adult teaching and training programs who need a graduate degree to broaden their career options. As you search for the best program to fit your needs, take into account some of these characteristics that distinguish quality programs in the field.

  • Accreditation

    Regionally accredited institutions meet objective standards of quality and lead to better employment opportunities. Students should also look for schools with programmatic accreditation for state licensure from the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, and specialized adult education accreditation from the International Association for Continuing Education and Training.

  • Specializations

    Some education master's programs offer adult education as a concentration within their teacher training degrees. Master's programs that focus exclusively on adult education and professional training may offer specializations in areas like adult literacy, distance education, instructional technology and English as a second language.

  • Graduation Rates

    An online master's in adult education represents a considerable investment of time and money for most students. High degree completion rates are an indicator that students progress through their degree and into the job market within a reasonable time frame.

  • Faculty Reputation

    The quality of a graduate program depends on the caliber of its faculty. Choose a program administered and staffed by faculty recognized as engaged researchers and teachers, and determine the extent of full-time faculty participation in the online degree program.

  • Online Course Delivery Formats

    Make sure the school you choose offers transparency about online course delivery and availability. Learn about any on-campus residency requirements, and whether courses are offered fully online or through hybrid sections; or if they are asynchronous, synchronous, or cohort-based.

Adult Education Careers After Earning Your Master's

The expansion of adult education has opened several career paths for master's degree holders. Professionals who specialize in teaching and training adult learners find themselves working in colleges, universities, and technical and vocational schools, helping adult students finish degrees and acquire the necessary skills to enter the workforce. A master's also prepares graduates to take on teaching and administrator roles in adult education centers, community organizations, social service agencies, and government programs. They often provide literacy training, English as a second language instruction, career counseling, and job training.

Many private industries employ adult education specialists to administer corporate training and professional development programs. A master's in adult education can be a useful credential for specialists in human resources whose responsibilities include providing new employee orientation and on-the-job training.

Training and Development Managers

These specialists work in corporate environments planning and administering programs that train new employers or develop skills for existing employees that enhance their efficiency and performance. Some positions require a master's degree in training and development, human resources, organizational behavior or business.

Median Annual Salary: $111,340

Postsecondary Teachers

Professors employed in postsecondary institutions teach and advise students enrolled in bachelor's and graduate programs. They develop curriculum, design courses, and serve on committees. While master's degree holders often teach at the postsecondary level, most colleges and universities require full-time faculty to hold a doctorate degree.

Median Annual Salary: $78,470

Career and Technical Education Teachers

CTE teachers find employment in public schools, community colleges, trade and business schools, providing vocational and technical training to equip students with the skills they need to enter the workforce. These teachers must have completed at least a bachelor's degree and possess previous work experience in the subjects they teach. Public school may require a state teaching license.

Median Annual Salary: $56,750

School and Career Counselors

Counselors generally need a master's degree and a state-issued license. Career counselors work with adult learners to evaluate their abilities, help them develop realistic career goals, guide them in acquiring skills they need for employment, and assist with job searches and applications.

Median Annual Salary: $56,310

Adult Literacy and High School Equivalency Diploma Teachers

Often employed by social and community-based agencies, community colleges, and public schools, these teachers instruct adults in basic literacy skills, English as a second language, and required coursework toward a high school diploma. These educators must hold at least a bachelor's degree and teacher certification.

Median Annual Salary: $53,630

Source: BLS

Guide to Online Doctorate Programs in Adult Education

Interested in pursuing your Ph.D. in adult education? Check out this guide to explore the different types of programs, degree requirements, and career opportunities.

Additional Certifications for Adult Education

While most states require a teaching license for employment at the elementary and secondary school level, many adult education professionals who teach or provide training in vocational schools, social and community-based organizations, and corporate settings pursue specialized certifications. Master degree holders often earn certifications in areas of adult learning such as technology instruction, performance consulting, leadership and management development, and English language acquisition and literacy education.

ProLiteracy Trainers Certification

ProLiteracy sponsors programs that provide professional development in adult literacy and basic education. The organization also offers a certification program for adult education professionals who have been endorsed by a local or state literacy program. Candidates must successfully demonstrate knowledge in core competencies of adult education, and mastery of content in either basic literacy or English as a second language.

Association for Talent Development Certifications

The ATD Certification Institute offers two types of certifications. The Associate Professional in Talent Development (APTD) credential is designed for professionals just beginning their careers, and validates competencies in instructional design, training delivery, and learning technologies. Adult educators and training specialists with five or more years of work experience may qualify for the Certified Professional in Learning and Performance (CPLP) credential. To qualify, applicants must demonstrate their competencies in all ten areas of the ATD Competency Model.

TESOL Leadership and Certificate Programs

Teaching English to Speaker of Other Languages (TESOL) is an international organization that offers professional development and certifications for teachers of English as a second language. TESOL offers several levels of certification. New professionals can earn the core credential, which provides a foundation in English language teaching. Seasoned educators may pursue the more advanced practitioner certificates that develop skills in a specific area.

Professional Organizations and Resources for Adult Education Students

This list provides a representative sample of the kinds of resources and professional organizations available to adult education practitioners. These groups provide a broad range of support services, including continuing education, career guidance and job banks, networking events, conferences, and webinars.

  • American Council on Education ACE represents the interests of the nation's colleges and universities, and shapes public policy and high-quality practice. ACE cultivates programs that advance equity, access and completion. The council sponsors centers of excellence, disseminates research, and offers leadership training programs.
  • Adult Higher Education Alliance AHEA advocates and provides support for adult learners in higher education. The alliance works with adult education professionals to coordinate the interests of diverse groups of adult learners in traditional and nontraditional programs. AHEA also promotes the academic quality of programs.
  • American Association for Adult and Continuing Education AAACE provides leadership in the field of adult and continuing education by expanding opportunities for adult growth and development, fostering best practices and standards for the profession, and advocating for public policy. It hosts an annual conference and offers several publications to its members.
  • Council for Adult and Experiential Learning CAEL, affiliated with the Strada Education Network, partners with educators, employers, and workforce and economic developers to provide support and integrate learning and work for adult learners. It sponsors several professional development initiatives for trainers and advisors, and administers the Adult Learner Academy.
  • International Association for Continuing Education and Training IACET accredits training organizations that offer continuing education units to ensure quality instruction and common standards for learning and development. IACET offers accreditation workshops, professional development webinars, training seminars, and an online library of research and resources for trainers.
  • International Society for Technology in Education ISTE offers evidence-based professional training, virtual networks, and other initiatives to integrate technology into teaching and learning. The society administers the ISTE Standards for students, educators, administrators, coaches, and computer science educators who use educational technology to create innovative learning environments.
  • National Association of State Directors of Adult Education NASDAE works with several government and private organizations in support of adult learning initiatives. It creates and conducts professional development programs for state adult education directors, and administrators and provides resources on state policies and procedures.
  • National Education Association The world's largest professional association, NEA represents the interests of public school teachers and support personnel, and faculty and staff at institutions of higher education. The association lobbies on behalf of civil rights in education, accessibility, and educational funding and accountability.
  • Online Learning Consortium OLC advances quality digital teaching and learning experiences designed to reach and engage the modern learner, including adult students. Members benefit from participation in national conferences and regional events. OLC administers online teaching certifications and instructional design programs.
  • Society for Human Resource Management This national association for HR professionals boasts a membership of over 300,000 in 165 countries. It promotes best practices in the HR profession, and develops and disseminates tools for maximizing human potential in the workplace.
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