Published on 2013/12/10

Catering to the Growing Group of Adult Students

The EvoLLLution | AUDIO | Catering to the Growing Group of Adult Students
Institutions need to create accessible, credential-oriented programs to cater to the massive adult student population.

The following interview is with Dan Gerger and Sarah Golin, co-founders of Adult Education Advocates, a group that helps adults find postsecondary programs, complete their applications and understand their financing options. In this interview, Gerger and Golin discuss some of the challenges adult students may face in higher education and share their thoughts on how institutions could help alleviate these issues.

1. What are some of the most significant hurdles adult students face at colleges and universities today?

Dan Gerger (DG): For adults, there are just no colleges out there that have adult programs.

We live in New Jersey and we did a survey of 10 public colleges in New Jersey and, of those 10 colleges, four of them had no adult programs at all. Some of the other ones had very, very limited programs. The only state school in New Jersey that has significant programs for adults is Thomas Edison State College. We called around and found some of them had programs in fire services for adults. Some of them may have had one program in general studies. But they were very limited in the sense that they may have only accepted students after they had a two-year degree.

It made it very difficult for adult students to find a program they could take advantage of.

Sarah Golin (SG): In some other parts of the country, if you’re in a less densely-populated area, there might not be any college within a reasonable commuting distance that has an adult program. The number one issue is to get more adult programs spread throughout colleges around the country. That’s certainly something that’s going to alleviate the issue that there’s not access.

But even with the colleges that do have adult programs, there’s often not a comprehensive program or a comprehensive strategy to help adult students. It’s very, very much by campus and by college.

DG: What we see in those instances is, even for the schools that have programs for adults, they don’t have a lot of classes in the evening. They may have classes only offered in the semester basis rather than in a modular program, so you may not have classes that are in the six- and eight-week format. Many, many schools don’t have a strategy for accepting prior learning credits, so they may not have a system to help adults with portfolios or CLEP [College Level Examination Program] credits. There’s just so many barriers for adults that, a lot of times, they become very frustrated.

And what we see, too, is that in the community college system, there are a lot of programs for adult students. So, a lot of students finish up at the community college level; adult students, they come out of the community colleges and now they’re looking to complete their degree, they’re looking to get that four-year degree. And then they start to run into all these barriers. …

This is a real issue. We find students have a really hard time once they finish up that two-year degree. Now what do they do? There may be small private schools that have [adult programs], but they are the more expensive options. And the elite private schools, they have very few adult programs.

SG: Some of the private non-profit colleges are doing a good job serving adult students. … They’ve discovered they can service this growing population of students and they’re marketing themselves to them and they’re also providing appropriate programs. So it’s not all dire. There are a few of them who are figuring it out.

Of course, there’s also a huge for-profit college business that has also seen this market of adult students and has very aggressively marketed to them. They have filled the void, but that has resulted in some issues and some problems as there’s been a lot of reporting on that, the problems in [the] for-profit college industry.

2. How would you define an adult program?

DG: For us, an adult program is a degree completion program; it’s not just courses for adults. There is a certificate or a diploma at the end of that adult degree completion program. For example, [from] a college that offers adult programs, you would get a degree in business or you would get a degree in nursing or a degree in criminal justice. … [Additionally], they would have classes in the modular format or hybrid courses [and] there would be an individual who would be dedicated to financial aid.

3. What are a few strategies institutions could put into place to help adult students overcome the obstacles they face in postsecondary education?

DG: Affordability for adults is one of the key things, and I think one of the strategies any school can put in is finding opportunities for people to be able to figure out how they’re going to pay for their college education. That could be through a dedicated financial aid individual. This person helps them fill out their FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid], this person helps them find opportunities for grants and loans [and] also helps them determine whether their own company has tuition reimbursement. I think this is a key strategy. I also think schools need to get buy-in from the very top: the president, the board of trustees, the academic vice-president. The individuals at the top of the universities and colleges have to really buy into the fact that adult education is important.

Individuals who are running adult education programs can’t be working in silos.

SG: I think the other thing Dan touched on before is the CLEP [College Level Examination Program] and the credits for prior learning, because what we’re seeing with a lot of the adult students we have contact with [is] that … they have other skills. They’ve been sent for management training even though they don’t necessarily have a college degree or they have a background in US history because they love to read those kinds of books.

For somebody who’s in their 40s and has a lot of life and work experience, to have a way to get some credits for those prior experiences, whether it’s something like the CLEP test or through a portfolio program — first of all, it shows the commitment the school has for adult students but it also provides a way for … [them] to maybe jump a semester ahead to get six or 12 credits through those prior learning assessments.

That’s another thing colleges and universities can put in place to help adult students move toward degree completion.

DG: That really helps to reduce costs, also: by adults being able to earn credits for their prior learning.

4. Are institutions doing enough, in general, to support the success of their adult students?

DG: I don’t want to be a total naysayer. I think there are schools that are doing quite a bit for the adult student population. Those schools have figured it out; they have put in place prior learning opportunities, they have dedicated staff. One of the things that many places do is they have what they call a concierge. That individual basically just works with the adult student population and guides them to the right departments.

But there’s so much more that can be done for the adult students, and there are so many schools that have not done enough. I think most colleges and universities are conservative in the sense that they find it hard to change and, with the state of education right now, there are a lot of schools that are in difficult fiscal shape. They need to figure it out. They need to find a way to put in place programs adult students can take advantage of.

So, yes, I think there are some that are doing well. But I think there’s so much more the colleges and universities can do for the adult student population.

SG: I think it starts with the involvement. If they are looking at it from the involvement side — how can we grow our student population, how can we increase our numbers? Adult students are a huge market that’s out there that colleges don’t invest a lot in, in terms of recruiting them.

But, if they start to look from the very beginning and then they look to the goal of degree completion for adults, they’re going to find that if they put the certain steps into place, it’s going to make good financial sense to them.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the challenges adult students face in higher education and institutions’ responsibilities and strategies toward helping them to pass those barriers?

DG: There are so many opportunities for our colleges and universities to put in place and implement strategies to help the adult student population. There are a lot of people out there that would love to go back to school. They just don’t know where to start. If schools make it easier, they’re going to see the degree completion rates go up. I think the key is that they need to start taking the steps to implement better programs.

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Key Takeaways

  • It’s critical for higher education institutions to design their programming to meet the unique needs of adult students.
  • Above all, adults are looking for programming that leads to a credential.
  • Having a single communication point for adult students to get all the information they need is critical to improve enrollment and retention.
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Readers Comments

RF 2013/12/10 at 1:04 pm

Gerger and Golin are right to say that institutions should approach adult education from a holistic standpoint, rather than simply offering a selection of courses for adult students. Institutions that take the holistic view will create the conditions for adult students to achieve success. For example, they tend to offer counseling services to help adult students through academic and non-academic challenges. Their financial aid program earmarks a certain amount just for adult students, and their processes are designed to work with adults’ schedules and needs (e.g. online application with a rolling deadline versus paper-based application due in the fall semester). Institutions farther along in serving adults may also look at bigger issues such as child care. Not many have reached this point yet, but the tide is changing.

Patricia Lawerence 2013/12/10 at 4:22 pm

Some institutions might be surprised to learn about the positive impact adult-friendly policies and services have on enrollment. I’ve worked in both recruiting and alumni relations and have heard from many adult students/graduates that the number one reason they choose the institution they did was because of an adult-specific policy or service that attracted them. There wasn’t any particular policy or service that stood out as the favorite, but recurring ones included: flexible scheduling, prior learning recognition, evening office hours and hybrid (online and in-person) options. This suggests to me that offering a variety of adult-specific services could improve an institution’s enrollment and retention prospects.

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