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Online Master’s Programs in Adult Education

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Updated on: 10/24/2018

If you enjoy teaching adults, an online master’s in adult education can open doors to some rewarding careers. This degree prepares you to work in a wide variety of settings, including nonprofits, professional associations, community organizations, government agencies, businesses, healthcare providers, and correctional facilities. If you already work in adult education, a master’s degree enables you to compete for a better job and advance in your career. While many organizations need experts in adult education, those who work in industry are the most highly paid and in demand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects job growth for training and development specialists to grow 11% between 2016 and 2026. Use this guide to online master’s degrees in adult education to explore what you will learn, possible careers, and ways to pay for your degree.

What Can I Learn in an Online Master’s in Adult Education Program?

In a master’s program in adult education, you will learn about the characteristics of adult learners and how to employ the best methods for engaging them in the classroom and online. The focus of degree programs can vary by school; some emphasize human resource development, while others focus on instructional or curriculum design. Course topics include organizational change, adult literacy, and research methods. This degree prepares educators to design curricula especially for adults, such as continuing education or professional development courses, business employee training programs, and community health education classes. Many programs require a final portfolio, capstone project, or thesis.

This degree generally consists of about 36 credit hours that will take you two or three years to complete part-time. Online master’s degree programs in adult education are typically designed for working professionals who must juggle the demands of school, family, and their career. While flexibility is built into online programs, course requirements do not vary significantly from on-campus programs.

What common courses are offered in a master’s in adult education program?

Each online master’s in adult education program differs somewhat regarding its course offerings. Required and elective courses vary according to the department or school offering the program, specializations available, and the target student population. All programs will instruct you in the best strategies for teaching adults and designing educational programs to meet identified goals and needs. See sample courses below.

Qualities of the Adult Learner

This course introduces the unique characteristics of adult learners and the best ways to engage and motivate them. Course topics include human development over a lifespan and research on adult learning. Participants learn to apply educational theories to their practice as adult educators when designing and delivering instruction.

Continuing Education for Adults

This course explores the role and impact of professional continuing education programs. Participants evaluate the goals and outcomes of these programs and learn effective methods of program design, implementation, and administration. Course topics include challenges in continuing education and case studies.

Organizational Change Management

Ideal for those hoping to use their expertise to help organizations grow and improve, this course explores theories of organizational change and the role training or educational programs can have in responding to or creating change. Participants learn ways to identify organizational needs and work with other leaders to set training goals.

Instructional Design

Participants learn the elements of instructional design and how to apply these to adult education. Instructional designers who blend knowledge of educational strategies, the instructional design process, and current technologies are in high demand. This course prepares adult educators to identify organizational needs and develop instructional materials and experiences to meet those needs.

Educational Technology

Employers today seek educators able to infuse digital media and other technology into their instruction. This course explores the impact of technology on teaching and learning and prepares educators to employ technology appropriately and effectively. Participants learn to use technology to deliver instruction in ways that maximize student engagement and enable evaluation of student learning.

What exams or projects should I expect?

The final exams or projects your online master’s in adult education requires will depend on the type of degree it is and the department that offers it. Master’s degrees in education (M.Ed.) typically require a field experience, such as student teaching, where you practice and apply the skills you learned in your coursework. A master’s of science (M.S.) degree in education emphasizes research and require a thesis. Some programs expect you to complete a portfolio or capstone project where you demonstrate your ability to plan and deliver instruction appropriate for adult learners. Others require you to pass a comprehensive written exam.

What specializations are available in a master’s in adult education program?

Master’s degrees in adult education offer a variety of electives and concentrations. These differ by school, department, program, and intended student population. Be sure to look carefully at the required and elective courses available in your program to see that they match your professional needs and interests. See below for several typical specializations available in adult education.

Human Resources Administration

Some programs are tailored to human resources professionals or allow for specialization in workforce development. This specialization particularly suits those who plan to use their degree to become corporate trainers, supervise trainers, or manage workplace training programs. Expertise in adult education can help human resources professionals move into leadership positions.

Adult Basic Education and Literacy

This specialization prepares degree holders to teach adults who wish to learn basic literacy skills or earn a high school diploma. These instructors work in industry, the military, prisons, school systems, and community organizations.

Instructional Design

This specialization fits the needs of those who enjoy designing and creating instructional materials and courses for adults using the latest technology. Instructional designers assess training needs in cooperation with managers, develop or select appropriate materials with content experts, and create instructional materials, sometimes with the assistance of instructional technology professionals.

What Can I Do With a Master’s in Adult Education Degree?

A master’s degree in adult education prepares you for a variety of careers. Almost every organization has some need to train adults, whether they are students, members, employees, clients, or customers. Some adult educators work in schools, technical education centers, correctional facilities, or community colleges to help adults gain the basic skills needed to go to college or get a job. Others work for companies that must train their employees or professional organizations that offer continuing education. With this degree, you gain valuable expertise in the design and delivery of educational experiences for adults.

Career opportunities

Adult Literacy and High School Equivalency Teacher

These teachers work in schools, community colleges, prisons, nonprofits, and community organizations to help adults learn basic skills, such as reading and writing English. They also teach adults the subjects required to pass the General Education Development (GED) test and earn a high school diploma. Adult literacy and GED teachers play an instrumental role in helping adults gain the basic skills needed to move out of poverty and into stable jobs.

Career and Technical Education (CTE) Teacher

CTE teachers work in schools, technical education centers, and community colleges to help students gain the technical and vocational skills needed to enter fields such as culinary arts, computer science, or healthcare. Some help their students earn the certifications or degrees required for a particular job. Work experience combined with an online master’s in adult education could qualify you for this position and enable you to take on a leadership role in your school.

Human Resources Specialist

Many companies operate human resources departments responsible for training new employees and providing ongoing professional development. A online master’s in adult education could qualify you to work as a human resources specialist tasked with designing, implementing, delivering, or evaluating employee training programs for an organization. A human resources professional with expertise in adult education is well positioned to specialize in workforce development, take on a leadership role, or become a corporate trainer.

Training and Development Specialist

These specialists help assess the training needs of their organizations and develop and deliver training programs to meet those needs. Training specialists work in settings such as corporations, nonprofits, and government agencies. Employers often prefer a master’s degree in adult education or a related field when hiring for this position. Since workplace instruction increasingly requires the use of technology, those with technical skills are in especially high demand.

Training and Development Manager

This management role typically requires a master’s degree as well as experience in training and development. An online master’s in adult education can help qualify you for this leadership position. These managers are responsible for overseeing their organization’s training programs and ensuring they meet company goals and needs. Training managers also select or approve training materials, supervise instructors, evaluate training programs, and manage training budgets.

Professional organizations

Professional organizations provide adult education professionals with opportunities for networking and professional development. They offer conferences, workshops, seminars, and continuing education online through courses and webinars. These associations often publish books, journals, and newsletters to keep professionals informed about their advocacy efforts and the latest research in the field.

American Association for Adult and Continuing Education (AAACE)

AAACE seeks to unify adult educators and provide them with opportunities for continued growth through eight special interest commissions, an annual conference, and scholarly journals. Member benefits include an online career center, webinars, and awards.

National Adult Education Professional Development Consortium (NAEPDC)

NAEPDC serves state adult education directors and their staff members through training activities, publications featuring best practices, and online resources. It advocates for adult education and literacy at the national level and keeps members informed about policy changes.

Coalition on Adult Basic Education (COABE)

COABE advances adult education and literacy through advocacy, research, and professional development. It hosts an annual conference, offers members liability insurance, and provides resources to adult educators including webinars and a peer-reviewed journal.

Association for Talent Development (ATD)

ATD offers professional development to workplace training managers, instructors, and designers through live and online course offerings and skills certificates. ATD’s website features a media library and information about professional certification.

Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)

Human resources professionals can turn to SHRM for articles on hot topics and legal issues, workplace resources and sample documents, and professional certification. SHRM also offers webcasts and skills certificates.

How Much Can I Make with a Career in Adult Education?

As you examine the chart below, you will note that adult education teachers earn average salaries above $50,000, and those engaged in workplace training earn over $60,000 a year. An online master’s in adult education is no guarantee you will make this much. However, it will help qualify you to enter the careers shown below or move up in your field, perhaps even into a leadership position.

Job Title Lowest 10% Earned Annually Median Annual Salary Highest 10% Earned Annually Job Growth 2016-2026
Adult Literacy and High School Equivalency Teacher Less than $31,310 $52,100 More than $87,160 -5%
Career and Technical Education Teacher Less than $33,430 $55,240 More than $89,880 4%
Human Resources Specialist Less than $35,810 $60,350 More than $103,570 7%
Training and Development Specialist Less than $33,150 $60,360 More than $102,340 11%
Training and Development Manager Less than $59,170 $108,250 More than $187,670 10%

Source: BLS 2018

Expected job growth in human resources training and development is faster than average, while job growth for adult education teachers is slower than average. However, as noted by the BLS, an increase in high school graduation rates and declining enrollment in adult education programs decreases demand for adult education teachers. A master’s degree can help you compete for existing adult education jobs or enter the lucrative field of training and development.

While most adult education jobs only require a bachelor’s degree, many employers in the field prefer a master’s degree. A graduate degree will give you the training and credentials needed to earn more and take on a leadership role. Also, examination of data from Georgetown’s Center for Education and the Workforce reveals that those holding master’s degrees in education earn about $12,000 to $15,000 more per year than those with bachelor’s degrees.

Online Master’s in Adult Education Program Accreditation

Accreditation is a voluntary process that schools go through to demonstrate their programs meet high-quality standards. You should only consider attending an accredited institution, preferably one that is regionally accredited for several reasons: employers value accreditation, you can qualify for financial aid if you attend an accredited school, and regionally accredited schools typically only accept transfer credits from other regionally accredited schools. This is important to consider if you plan to change schools or pursue a doctorate.

In addition to institutional accreditation, some degree programs also earn programmatic accreditation. Specialized accreditation varies by field and is not standard in adult education and training master’s programs.

How to Pay for a Master’s in Adult Education Degree

Online graduate students are often working professionals who pay for their education out of pocket, perhaps with some assistance from their employer or with the help of loans, and others apply for financial aid. Some forms of financial aid for graduate students are only available to students with a specific course load, while others are available regardless. See below for some financial aid options.

  • Federal Financial Aid

    If you plan to apply for financial aid at your school, you will need to complete the FAFSA. On October 1 of each year, the federal government opens this free online application. As a graduate student, the federal government considers you independent and will not ask you to enter financial information about your parents. Based on your financial information and enrollment status, FAFSA could qualify you for low-interest federal direct unsubsidized loans, direct PLUS loans, state aid, and institutional financial aid.

  • Employer Tuition Assistance

    If you are working, check if your employer offers tuition reimbursement. Many organizations provide this benefit because of what they stand to gain when their employees increase their professional knowledge. Even if your employer does not offer tuition assistance as a standard benefit, it is a good idea to find out if it might consider providing it in your case — especially if your online master’s in adult education will directly benefit your employer.

  • Departmental Aid

    Many university departments offer assistance such as grants, stipends, or fellowships to graduate students. Check with your department to see if it provides these opportunities. Typically, departments offer aid to students with financial need who provide some service to the department or community, such as research assistants, teaching assistants, or school interns. Your department chair should be able to let you know about any opportunities that exist and how to apply for them.

  • Organizational Scholarships

    Professional organizations, community organizations, and charitable foundations often offer scholarships to graduate students. Begin by checking with any organizations you belong to as well as professional organizations in your field. For example, the Coalition on Adult Basic Education (COABE) offers a variety of scholarships, awards, and grants. You will need to apply for scholarships and fellowships; while this can be a time-consuming process, your efforts may well pay off.