Published on 2015/05/18

Planning For Success: Seven Ways to Address the Challenges of Today’s Adult Learners

Planning For Success: Seven Ways to Address the Challenges of Today’s Adult Learners
Creating a tailored experience for adult students is the best way to retain adult learners once they’re enrolled.

As you are probably aware, the new majority on college campuses is older—over 25 years of age. This group is aware of economic trends and workforce demands, and responded by enrolling in postsecondary institutions, either to complete the degree they started years ago, to pursue a new credential or to explore a new career path. With enrollments leveling off or decreasing among the traditional 18- to 22-year-old market, college administrators have explored ways to attract more adult students to their institutions. Some have budgeted funds, seeking help from professional organizations such as CAEL (Council for Adult and Experiential Learning) and Ruffalo Noel Levitz to assist in marketing to these adults. This approach has definitely resulted in higher adult enrollments. The concern is that, having been away from postsecondary education for some time (if they’ve been enrolled at all in their past), adults are anxious or intimidated about returning to college. This leaves them vulnerable, especially if the college they attend does not serve them well. Negative experiences do not sit well with adults and obstacles they encounter may encourage them to give up and not return again. This leads to one conclusion—getting adults to come to college is one thing, but retaining them is an issue of significant importance that needs to be addressed.

College administrators need to understand that adults are a special breed. Working with adults should not simply be an add-on to the college’s main mission. They have an incredible diversity of life and work experiences. They will expect the institutional bureaucracy and administration to be proactive and invested in their success. This new majority is emphatic and certain about what they want out of college. They are smart and experienced, armed with more information and options to be more selective about which colleges to attend. Enrolling adult students is sure to produce higher FTE’s, but if the services they are looking for are not offered they will leave, no matter how inexpensive the college is. That is not good because adults appear to be a student population that is here to stay.

Colleges who wish to attract, and more importantly, retain adults until they complete their program, will need to think beyond traditional ways of teaching and delivering education programs and services. Let’s explore seven high-impact ways for institutions to attract adults to their college and, more importantly, retain them through to completion:

1. Financial Assistance

Adults count on predictable financial assistance (other than a lottery approach) as a number one priority. Without financial assistance, adults may have trouble staying in school. Using an array of payment plans and sufficient scholarship money would be ideal. Some colleges even offer cheaper tuition rates to adults, especially for those pursuing evening classes.

2. Credit for Prior Learning and Experience

This credit, like financial assistance, is a major priority for any institution hoping to serve this demographic. Colleges must keep in mind that adults bring more than book learning to the classroom. Earning credit for learning from life experiences is one sure way of assuring adult students that they will earn a degree in less time. Find ways to offer prior learning credit without making the process complicated. A nice rumor that has surfaced at adult conferences is that some schools allow adult students to use earned PLA credit when applying for financial aid. Adult students who received PLA credit report this as a major reason for persistence toward completing a degree.

3. No Red Tape

Adults won’t tolerate getting the runaround. They already have enough insecurity about coming back to college. The objective is to minimize negative surprises and allow them to focus on their school and life priorities. Adult learners are demanding! They will not commit to colleges that do not demonstrate immediate and sincere interest in them and this includes the president and her top level administrators.

4. Inter-Institutional Pathways

Community colleges should establish articulation agreements with four-year institutions that are well suited to serving adult learners. This arrangement provides the opportunity to make a smooth transition to the four-year college, and improves adult students’ chances at earning bachelor’s degrees. If both the two-year and four-year institutions have a fast-track program, adult students will be able to obtain their credentials in a shorter period of time.

For example, our institution (Monroe Community College) has this arrangement with Roberts Wesleyan College, a four-year institution. Students can earn an MCC Liberal Arts degree in 18 months and then go on to Roberts Wesleyan, where they can earn a bachelor’s degree in Organizational Management, Health Administration or Criminal Justice in a further 15 months.

5. Work Closely With Veterans

Dealing with returning vets is not like dealing with the typical adult student. Their enthusiasm for returning to college could dissipate if not treated with respect and concern for their welfare. Many veterans feel overwhelmed especially during their first semester at college dealing with admissions, financial aid, academic advising, and disability services. As they arrive on college campuses they immediately look to administration, faculty and other student veterans for support. They really wish to learn and get a degree but without strong advising and emotional support they could have a tough time and may consider dropping out. If possible, faculty should work closely with the Veterans Office if they have concerns about the veterans in their classes.

6. Collaborate With Colleagues At Other Colleges

This is a simple strategy but important for success. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel from institution to institution. Exchange thoughts and ideas and assess each other’s policies as they relate to adult retention. I am sure that, with retention as the topic, there will be a lot to talk about.

7. Monitor and Analyze Student Progress

Track adult drop outs to determine if there was displeasure among these students, especially when it comes to the way they were treated. Assess why they dropped out and record the legitimate reasons behind their decision to leave their college. This is not an easy task and it is time-consuming, unless the research or admissions offices get involved. In fact, these two offices may have already done research that will be helpful to those seeking this information.


I would like to conclude with a few thoughts about degree completion.

Completion should be on the front burner of colleges that have an adult population, and colleges should agree to work exceptionally hard to get it right for the adult learners. As this report indicates adults have some very legitimate reasons for dropping out and returning. One of their reasons for dropping out is because they are discouraged. We can work to prevent this. I believe that if we restructure our programs so that adults complete their degrees in a reasonable amount of time and we give them good advisement and bend over backwards to help them get through college, we can prevent their “going out the door.” Finances are always a major reason for dropping out, so offering adults different payment options will help in the retention process.

We need to reach out to those adult learners who have accumulated enough credit that matches a degree program but have had to drop out. I have seen students come into my office with up to 110 credits or more on a transcript. These students had been to various colleges but had no idea how to put the puzzle together to get a degree. All they got out of it was a lot of debt and time wasted. Helping these students put the puzzle together means showing them the best way to utilize the credits they have. Then we need to emphasize the importance of their getting a degree or another type of working.

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