, Volume 54, Issue 3, pp 1147–1173 | Cite as

Back to School: Racial and Gender Differences in Adults’ Participation in Formal Schooling, 1978–2013

  • Patrick DeniceEmail author


Trends and gaps in educational attainment by race and gender have received much attention in recent years, but reports of these trends have generally focused on traditional-age college students. Little is known about whether and how enrollment in formal schooling among older adults (between 29 and 61 years old) has changed over time. In this article, I draw on Current Population Survey data from 1978 to 2013 to provide the most comprehensive analysis of trends in adults’ formal school enrollment by demographic group to date. Results indicate that adult black women in particular have seen relatively high growth rates in their enrollment. Black women were 85 % more likely to enroll in 2011 and 46 % more likely in 2013 than they were in 1978. Their growing advantage relative to other racial-gender groups owes largely to their increasing educational attainment rates overall, given the relationship between prior schooling and enrollment later in life. Taken together, this article’s findings suggest that adult enrollment is at once equalizing and disequalizing. On the one hand, it has the potential to narrow the gaps between those with some college experience and those with a four-year degree. On the other hand, patterns of adults’ participation in formal education are widening educational gaps between those with and without traditional-age college experience.


Adult education Gender Race Life course Trends 



I am grateful to Jake Rosenfeld, Hedwig Lee, Stewart Tolnay, and Jerald Herting for their insightful comments on prior drafts of this article. The editors and anonymous reviewers also provided useful suggestions.


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Copyright information

© Population Association of America 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyWashington University in St. LouisSt. LouisUSA

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