Published on 2015/09/23

Overcoming the Five Most Significant Roadblocks Facing Non-Traditional Students

The EvoLLLution | Overcoming the Five Most Significant Roadblocks Facing Non-Traditional Students
By understanding the roadblocks facing adult students, institutions can take great strides to ensure they are minimizing the size and impact of these barriers.

Recently, Northern Kentucky University surveyed inquirers who decided not to enter our adult programs to glean how we can be more responsive to their needs. We were surprised to find that 80 percent of respondents had not enrolled elsewhere. Their answers provide an overview of the obstacles preventing them from returning to school and highlight five current realities we must address to support our adult learners.

1. They Lack Confidence

We’ve long known that adult learners worry about their ability to be successful in college, especially given the fact that many of them failed in their early attempts at higher education. Once in the door, however, they need ongoing support as they prove to themselves they can be good students. Bringing tutors onsite, helping students network and asking faculty to provide feedback early and often throughout each course are tangible ways to help students build the confidence they need to succeed.

2.They Need Career Coaching

Yes, more often than not, they have jobs, but they are unclear about their next career moves, and often don’t know how to position themselves to advance. While resume writing and interviewing advice are appreciated, adult students need guidance about how to translate their skill sets across industry sectors to parlay their experience and education into career opportunity. Ideally, this will involve one-on-one coaching in some capacity. Even more importantly, they need this help after 5 p.m. because they are not available during the workday.

3. They Need Help Budgeting For School

The days when employers paid for virtually all of their employees’ tuition are long gone. Even though tuition reimbursement plans have returned in many benefit packages, they typically cover only a percentage of the total cost. Adult learners need help developing realistic budgets that cover the full cost of their education for the entirety of their enrollment, not just the first semester or year. Increasingly, adult learners need grants and scholarships to defray mounting costs. We have found that awarding even small amounts like $250 for books can make a big difference in students’ persistence.

4. They Operate On A Just-In-Time Mentality

One of the most frustrating features of adult learners is they wait until the last minute to do virtually everything. Try as we may, we cannot convince them to take action early. Consequently, we have to be patient when closing classes due to low enrollment, forecasting staffing needs, or assigning classroom space. The flip side of the coin is that once an adult learner is ready to act, the program team has to be ready and willing to offer just-in-time support, sometimes even jumping through hoops to get students enrolled in time for the start of classes. Providing tutorials, step-by-step directions on websites, and access to staff via technology can help speed up the process—as long as all sites are mobile-friendly.

5. They Expect A Lot From Advisors

On one hand, working with adult learners is a dream job for advisors because adults are motivated to succeed and have already mastered key skills like time management. On the other hand, adults can be demanding and often have unrealistic expectations about the role of advisors. Overall, we find that adult learners expect their advisors to be readily available and to answer questions that may not be related to advising. This is another reason we invest so heavily in providing “FAQ” answers on our website and through our content management system. No matter how proactive we are, however, adults frequently call or email their advisors with seemingly every question that arises. We have learned to build this in to the advisors job expectations. Slowly but surely most adults will learn to navigate the higher education landscape without guidance, but adult-focused programs must acknowledge the reality that adults returning to school may initially equate the role of advisor with that of “customer service representative.”

At NKU, we are pleased to have received this reality check from our inquiries. As we celebrate our tenth year of service to adult learners through the PACE Program at NKU (2005-2015), we are always looking for opportunities to refine our program to meet the needs of our adult learners.

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Readers Comments

Grace Cooper 2015/09/23 at 9:41 am

This is actually quite refreshing, as a person who deals primarily with traditional-age undergraduates. Younger students are often bashed by those working mostly with adults for being immature or lacking skills such as time management. It’s a little vindicating to hear that adult students are just as bad if not worse for leaving things to the last minute and for demanding to have their hands held through administrative processes. Higher education is challenging no matter the age bracket.

Brad Hunter 2015/09/23 at 11:02 am

What a proactive response to slow enrollment. While the rest of us are sitting here hemming and hawing over how to get the ones that got away, you’ve just asked the questions outright. Some of these answers are definitely surprising, which just means we should be asking these questions more often.

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