In 1978, Gallup asked Americans for the first time how important they thought a college education is.

At that time, just 36 percent of Americans considered a college education to be very important.

Today, the percentage of American adults who believe a college education is very important has reached an all-time high of 70 percent.

According to Gallup, the reason Americans value a college education more than ever before may reflect evidence that Americans with college degrees earn significantly more over their lifetimes than those without degrees.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), college graduates earn 39 percent more annually on average than those with just a high school diploma: $55,432 vs. $33,904.

In addition, BLS statistics show that by the year 2020, approximately 30 percent of all new jobs will require some college education.

And if you're thinking about a graduate degree, you're on the right track. Research shows between 2010 and 2020, the number of jobs typically requiring a master's degree for entry is projected to rise by 22 percent.

But while more and more Americans see the value of a college education, fewer are going about getting a degree in the traditional fashion. And fewer still fit into the mold of "traditional student."

Nontraditional is the new traditional

According to The Wall Street Journal, 71 percent of college students today are considered "nontraditional." By most definitions that means students over the age of 22 who may or may not work a full- or part-time job and have other obligations, such as parenting, while taking classes.

That's one explanation for the surge in growth of online learning programs.

In 2013, the number of students taking at least one online course grew to more than 7.1 million, a 6.1 percent increase over the previous year according to a study by the Babson Study Research Group. The study goes on to say that online learning is at an all-time high, with 33.5 percent of higher education students enrolled in at least one online course.

The reason why online learning is revolutionizing higher education is easy to see: online degree programs offer maximum flexibility and convenience to adult learners, particularly those juggling work and family obligations.

And that's not a small group. According to the Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success, 32 percent of students today are enrolled in classes while holding down a full-time job, and 23 percent juggle the demands of parenting with the demands of being a student.

Pathway to a better life

Rusty Hamm, a father of 10, whose job requires about 40 percent travel, earned his bachelor's degree in business administration online from Saint Leo University in 2014. Getting a degree, he says, was very important and a major step in his career plan.

"Being able to advance in my career takes more than just hard work. You need the academic qualifications," he says.

And while Hamm admits that time management posed the greatest challenge as he earned his degree, he learned quickly to adapt.

So, too, did Robbie Smart, a 2014 Saint Leo University graduate who earned his degree in computer information systems online.

"My mom always wanted her kids to get a bachelor's degree so that was the original focus," he says of his decision to pursue a college education. "But after starting a family, my focus became bettering myself so I could provide a better life for my wife and daughter."

He calls his Saint Leo experience "very positive."

"There are too many positives to list here about my time at Saint Leo, but I would do it all over if I had to choose again," he says, in spite of the challenges of juggling school, a career, family and responsibilities as a high school baseball coach.

Modeling strength through education

Beth Grimes hadn't planned on going back to college, but when her husband died suddenly, she enrolled in Saint Leo's online criminal justice degree program – both out of necessity and to be a role model for her two young daughters.

Learning online allowed her to stay focused on her priorities.

"I wanted my family to come first. I decided to study online so that I could have the flexibility to set my own schedule," she says.

Immediately following the completion of her last course, Grimes accepted a position with the Tampa Police Department.

"More and more adults are realizing that having a college degree is critical for getting a job or advancing a career," says Chestnut. "Our students tell us again and again how much they appreciate the quality, flexibility and convenience of our accredited online degree programs. For many, like Rusty, Robbie and Beth, online education is opening the door to a brighter future."

Do you agree about the value of a college education in today's marketplace?

Other posts you may be interested in:

How To Prepare For Online Learning

Online Degree Programs | Find The Right Fit For You

Online Degree Programs | Don't Be Afraid To Start!

Image Credit: Sarawut Aiemsinsuk on Shutterstock