Published on 2013/08/07
AUDIO | Understanding the Needs of Adult Students
Adult students are intrinsically motivated, and institutions must provide the supports necessary to ensure these non-traditional learners can progress and succeed in higher education.

The following interview is with Frank Mulgrew, president of Post University’s Online Education Institute. Since 2012, Post University has published an annual Adult Learner Survival Guide, an e-book sharing the stories of adult students who took the plunge and enrolled in higher education. In this interview, Mulgrew discusses the Survival Guide in more detail, shares some of the lessons adult students think their colleagues need to hear and explains how institutions can use these insights to better serve adults.

1. What motivated the university to start developing the Adult Learner Survival Guide?

Well, it’s an interesting story because every day all of us at the University are inspired by what our adult students are doing and what they’re achieving. We thought that, using social media, we could get the message out [and] ask adult learners across the country — because it’s not just for our students, it’s students across the country — and ask them, “What advice would you have for other students, other people potentially thinking about going back and finishing their degree?” …

We’re constantly trying to figure out how to support our students and, really, there’s a wealth of knowledge in those that have gone through or are going through what some of these students are thinking about, or potential students are thinking about, going through when they’re studying.

2. Now that the second edition has been published, what are some of the most common lessons past adult students want to share with future adult students?

Well, I think the lessons are just something amazing and they seem common sense but they’re just so good. The first that jumps out at me is persistence. You know, be persistent, keep going for it, there’s going to be challenges along the way.

“Have a goal in mind,” they tell us. … “Have that vision for yourself, have that goal in mind, that end goal, and keep working towards that.” So, that persistence, that goal-mindedness, are critically important.

And the third lesson I would say that jumps out is partly how to manage your time and balance work, life and career with the support of the people around you towards achieving your vision, towards achieving that goal that you have set.

3. Reflecting on the content of these books, what would you say are the most significant challenges today’s working adults face in higher education?

It’s a challenge when you’re balancing career, your work life, what you have to do with your families and then also the rigors of study. Anybody that’s going to a solid, good institution is going to have to work at it, and balancing that when you have any of these other concerns will be a challenge. So, certainly, what comes out is that’s the biggest challenge, and making sure you’re on top of that and flagging for it and getting yourself that space in your schedule where you can quietly — and by yourself — work, even though you may not be completely working by yourself — you might be working on teamwork or other types of things… — you need to be able to set that time up and know that it’s dedicated towards your studies.

4. What kinds of changes do you think institutions must look to make in response to those challenges?

Well, this has been a significant challenge for higher education and, atPostUniversity, we call it our 360-degree approach. I think that is where things are going with supporting adult learners and that’s with this notion that providing a support base that surrounds the students and is there when they need it. And, letting the students know that they’re not alone, that there’s everything from tutoring services to help desk services, that their faculty are available to them. A big part of really having successful adult online education is having that deep engagement, having faculty that are working with students, that are mentoring students, that are supporting them and helping them and those relationships are being built.

So, institutions are grappling with that. I think we’ve done a good job and I think there are a number of universities that are on the forefront of what that means to support people at a distance who are in hybrid progress, where some come on your campus and not on your campus at other times. That’s the modern adult student, and I think that’s the biggest challenge for colleges and universities: how to re-gear themselves and make sure that they are putting the resources into supporting the students, meeting the students where their challenges are. The biggest issue with students is not their ability to do the work. Interestingly enough, 35, 40, 45-year-old students are very, very motivated. They’ve lived life, they’re doing this for themselves, for their families, and they have that built-in motivation, which 18 to 22-year-olds can have but sometimes they don’t. And, really, it’s the institutions being able to help them through those challenging times when life events happen, giving them flexibility and making sure that the students are able to afford and finance their education. These are all big concerns and universities have to step up and figure out ways to help them.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of the lessons being learned in the Adult Learner Survival Guide and the way institutions can move with them?

Well, it strikes me that it’s such a positive note. I mentioned at the onset how inspired we were by our students, but that can be just students across the country. I’m inspired by what adults are doing and I’m inspired by the fact that we have a country that is very, very diverse and people from all types of backgrounds, all types of careers, all types of life situations are able to make this work and achieve their goals and I think, I would hope — and we would hope — that people come away inspired and motivated to want to change and improve their lives through education.

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Readers Comments

Kyle W 2013/08/07 at 9:34 am

I stumbled on this interview while searching online for the Adult Learner Student Guide. It’s interesting to hear the rationale for the guide from Mr. Mulgrew. I just got my e-copy and haven’t gone through all 30 student stories yet, but it’s interesting and helpful so far.

Cindy Lauer 2013/08/07 at 12:06 pm

A lot of what Mulgrew talks about is individual responsibility (e.g. making time to study) as opposed to what an institution could be doing to support adult students. Even when questioned about the role of the institution in helping adult learners, Mulgrew offers a vague answer about “engagement” without going into any tangible initiatives. How disappointing.

    Natasha Rubin 2013/08/08 at 10:34 am

    I agree, but I don’t think Mulgrew is alone on this.

    It seems the general attitude expressed by institutions about their adult learners is very much, “You’re on your own!” If anything, Post University should be jumping on the valuable feedback adult students are giving them for the guide as a way to develop services and supports — and other institutions would do well to follow their lead.

      Kelly 2013/08/14 at 1:14 pm

      Hi Natasha and Cindy,

      Really appreciate your thoughts on this piece! Post University actually has a really strong student support team in place to provide students with a very personalized experience. And online courses are highly interactive with plenty of time for students to connect with other classmates and their professors. Help is only a phone call or email away! As a student, I was amazed by how much contact I had — way more than I had in a traditional college setting as an undergrad. All that said, getting the work done was still on me. 🙂

Jim Miller 2015/03/06 at 9:42 pm

There are two significant changes in how education occurs:

1. Point of entry. The initial point of entry is important to get one’s bearings. I use Wikipedia which is getting better and better. I use the “Links” section and scan the “References” for good choices for drilling down.
2. Google Search is my next stop, now that I have in mind the search terms. I can cover a huge amount of ground as well as drill down.
We need more project-based learning and less rote memory exercises based on the talking head. I know bubble answers are cheap to grade, but we need more essay type responses and comments made by the professor or TA on the graded paper.

Jim Miller

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