Adapting to the Rise in Non-Traditional Students (Part 2)

Co-written with Sarah Golin | Co-Founder, Adult Education Advocates

Adapting to the Rise in Non-Traditional Students (Part 2)
By creating an adult program enrollment council, higher education institutions can begin to structure their institution around the changes demanded by adult students.

This is the conclusion of Dan Gerger and Sarah Golin’s two-part series discussing what colleges and universities must do to create successful adult student programs. In the first part, Golin and Gerger shed light on the changing industry, discussing how even the most successful traditional institutions are being impacted by the decline in enrollments of 18 to 22-year-olds. They also introduced the concept of an adult program enrollment council to help institutions through this change. In the conclusion, they discuss strategies the enrollment council can put in place to help institutions adapt to the new environment.

The job of the enrollment council would be to dedicate resources to cutting-edge recruitment strategies, to ensure superior academic and administrative services are in place to retain adult students, to develop new majors and degree programs that appeal to adult students and, finally, to create opportunities for adults to earn credit for life experiences.

Here is more detail about these four functions.

1. Dedicate Resources to Adult Recruitment

For most colleges, the overwhelming majority of money for marketing and admissions is dedicated to finding and recruiting 18 to 22-year-old students.  According to a 2010-11 Noel-Levitz report, private colleges spend an average of $2,185 to recruit a new freshman student.  They also employ one full-time staff member for every 33 new students.  The recruiting cost for a school that enrolls 600 new students is $1.3 million, plus the salary and benefits of another 18 staff. At one of the small schools I worked at, our adult student marketing and recruiting budget was $60,000 and we had one full-time admissions staff. For schools to successfully recruit and retain adult students, they need to dedicate additional human and financial resources.

2. Develop Quality Services for Adult Students

Adult and evening programs need to have adequate staffing to ensure students are able to find answers to their questions and help when they need it. Successful adult programs have found that having a dedicated individual to help adults has been extremely effective. This individual, often called an adult learner concierge, serves as a single point of contact for adult learners. The concierge helps returning adult students navigate the application, enrollment and registration processes, including assistance with students’ prior learning assessments. Colleges that have successful adult programs also keep their administrative and academic offices open after 5 p.m. For any adult student who works during the day and needs help with academic advising, financial aid or admissions information, a 5 p.m. closing time is unworkable.

3. Develop New Majors and Programs for Adult Students

Adult students want practical, professional degrees that will help them find and keep a job in today’s market. There’s nothing wrong with offering a sports management degree or a professional studies degree alongside degrees in philosophy or humanities. However, too often, small private liberal arts colleges offer degrees that just don’t meet the needs of a non-traditional student. Often, when any mention of creating a professional degree is brought up, faculty are reluctant to change for fear of damaging the school’s reputation. Because of the critical role that faculty play at colleges today, their support for adult-oriented programs is key to developing successful non-traditional undergraduate programs.

4. Providing Credit for Prior Knowledge and Life Experiences

For adult students who want to return for a bachelor’s degree, 75 percent report they are more interested in institutions that provide credit for their life experiences. For an adult student who earned college credit  10 or 20 years ago, worked at a few jobs, received a certificate and studied a language,  providing opportunities to earn college credit for these experiences can save him or her both time and money. At adult-friendly colleges, that student could earn up to 45 credits in experiential learning gained from prior employment, community service and other pursuits. The credits can be acquired through standardized testing, such as the College Level Examination Program (CLEP), or through portfolio programs. With the cost of a college credit ranging from $300 to $1,000, the savings for an adult student would be between $10,000 and $45,000 for a full program and could reduce time spent in school by a couple of years.

Some colleges and universities are adapting their programs and services to meet the needs of adult students, while other schools are having a difficult time making this adjustment. Will the institutions that can’t change become one of the public and private non-profit colleges that Bain & Co. found are on an “unsustainable financial path” or are “at risk of slipping into an unsustainable condition?” Only time will tell, but by taking the small steps listed above, many colleges and universities could reduce their financial problems while serving the growing number of adults going back to college.

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Readers Comments

Linda McAdams 2014/02/27 at 11:22 am

The first article about establishing an institution-wide council was interesting, and this article offers solid suggestions for improving the adult experience in higher education. These range from small-scale changes to actions with larger policy implications, and institutions are able to scale them according to their resources and capacity.

    anon 2014/02/27 at 3:23 pm

    I hope I’m not misunderstanding your comment, Linda, but I wouldn’t say these are exactly a “grab bag” of ideas. To a certain extent, all of these recommendations have to be implemented to have an adult-friendly institution. Each one addresses a challenge either in attracting or retaining adult students. Thus, if you only implement some of these ideas, your adult students may have a choppy experience as they move through your programs.

Genine 2014/03/03 at 11:29 am

Interesting point about providing majors that are more focused, appealing to the adult student. I wonder if you can offer some examples of the types of majors that are luring adults back to school.

Lawrence Kaplan 2014/03/04 at 2:02 pm

Having taught in the adult program at Queens College (ACE), for over 10 years, I am impressed at how sensitive the program founders (Gollin & Gerger) are with what is required to help adult students succeed. Especially during the first few years,the availability of advisers is a must.

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