Published on 2012/06/14

Conversation Key to Determining Adult Student Needs

Sometimes administrators need to simply talk to their students to know what they need. Adult students wind up on the losing end when decisions about non-traditional programming are based on metrics from traditional-aged students and anonymous metric-gathering. Photo by 77Orchids.

Last month I shared a few reasons why it is fiscally wise for higher education institutions to attend to and retain adult student populations. I mentioned the importance of having personnel who understand life stage issues and can lend support, as well as why valuing adult students can help retain them.

I mentioned that there is a robust population of adult students at the university where I now serve; over the past half-decade there has been a steady flow of adults through our undergraduate, degree completion, and graduate programs, which should not be surprising since statistics (from 2006 and earlier) have suggested that at least a third of all undergraduate students alone are over the age of 25.

The research that includes such statistics usually focuses on the processes colleges and universities can develop to attract and keep adult students; the policy changes public institutions should consider to make higher education more equitable for adult students; and the programs that should be created to help adult students adjust to ever-changing higher education experiences. Such statistics help colleges and universities advocate for adult student populations in order to allocate and create appropriate learning spaces; however, statistics do not provide insight as to the methods that can be employed by higher education leaders to determine the needs of adult students on their campuses.

Here is the key to determining those needs:

Ask adult students what they need to succeed.

Higher education professionals participate with one another to create research studies related to adult students, spend time during team meetings talking about adult student needs, and attend conferences about adult learning. We rely on scholarship to tell us how to interact with the populations on our campuses and often do not spend enough time talking to our constituents. I was honored to meet with students, administrators, staff, and faculty members on my campus to discuss support services for our adult and graduate students and while the responses from these groups intersected in many places, the observations and reactions from the students themselves was a most important tool in guiding the next steps our leaders took to meet the varied needs of these populations.

There are many different instruments available to survey your adult student population but one of the best is good old-fashioned leg-work. If you are invested in your adult students, create an opportunity for qualitative research; you probably have a willing and available administrator, faculty member, or other scholar-practitioner associated with your institution to do some interviewing, focus groups, and coding who could work with your students, ask the questions, and develop lists of what your campus is doing well and what are areas of challenge.

It is important for your institution to recognize that there are issues affecting adult students that may not be issues yet for your “traditional age” students; making assumptions about the needs of adult students could negatively impact the same bottom lines (accreditation reporting, word-of-mouth recruiting, and state and federal aid) that I identified previously. Having evidence of the self-identified (read: customized) needs of adult students on your campus, rather than relying solely on aggregated research findings, will lead you to the development of a campus-appropriate plan for successful adult student support systems.

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Markowitz, M. & Russel, A. (2006). Policy matters: Addressing the needs of adult learners. Retrieved from

Milheim, K.L. (2005). Identifying and addressing the needs of adult students in higher education. Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 45(1),  119-128.

“Identify the needs of adult learners.” College Board, The College Completion Agenda. Retrieved from

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Readers Comments

Marlene Brauer 2012/06/14 at 10:04 am

This seems simple enough; “just ask”. But you’d be surprised how hard it is to get administrators to look behind the metrics and numbers to see the context and specific needs of their students.

When the analytics and personal analysis line up, then there’s no problem. But what do you do when the analytics and personal analysis differ?

For example, if the analytics say that students want to have more creative arts courses available to them but you know your adult students want a greater availability of workforce-preparation courses – how would you approach your decision-making body to turn this intelligence into action?

Andree Robinson-Neal 2012/06/21 at 11:36 am

That is a fabulous question, Marlene! You are absolutely correct; our leaders (VP’s, Provosts, etc.) typically don’t have time to do more than read the analytics and listen to our 5-minute pitch. That is where our knowledge of current trends, along with our relationships with those across multiple levels of the organization, become important. To use your example, if the analytics say that students want more creative courses and through conversations with the population you discover a desire for more workforce-related courses, it is important to study the disparity: which portion of your adult population responded to each assessment? Why the difference? Where were the similarities? Also, it is important to know your deans, chairpersons, and if possible–faculty members. If you have a relationship with folks at these levels, you may be able to affect innovation. Of course, this works best at either smaller institutions or within concise units, rather than larger ones or across all units. It all boils down to relationship-building. If you are not in a position to impact deans or chairpersons, hopefully you have a relationship with your Executive Director (or the person to whom you directly report) who in turn has a relationship with the deans or chairpersons and is willing to carry your recommendations forward.

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