Published on 2013/07/23
Five Most Critical Needs of Adult Students
Adult learners have some specific needs institutions must fulfill to help support their success in higher education.

Last fall, my university conducted the Noel-Levitz Adult Learner Inventory for the second time. The inventory asks students to rate the importance of, and their satisfaction with, 77 statements about their educational experience. I was struck by the similarity of the results between when we first administered the survey in 2008 and those from 2012. For the most part, the needs of adult learners have remained fairly constant, although their expectations for how those needs should be met have dramatically changed. Based on my experience with adult learners, I believe five of the most important elements to help adult learners succeed in higher education continue to be:

1. Programming that works with their schedules

Adult learners continue to rank the convenience of their schedule and the location of courses as critical. Initially, I was surprised flexibility continued to rank as a top concern since more adult students in 2012 were unemployed and taking full-time course loads than in 2008. However, this likely reflects the fact that adult learners are primarily in school to either improve their occupational skills or to prepare for a new or different career. Plus, most adult learners have dependents at home. Thus, they need to finish their degrees as quickly as possible to return to, or advance in, the workplace, but they must have flexible options in order to fit courses into their weekly schedules.

2. Relevant degree programs

Adult learners want programs aligned with their life and work goals. They know they need a degree to advance their careers, but they have specific occupational aspirations. Among those completing the 2012 survey at my institution, the top five majors were (in order): organizational leadership, nursing, computer information technology, business administration and education. Some of these majors pursued by adult students support the need for advancement in their current occupations while others, such as nursing and education in particular, suggest students are looking to change careers.

3. Clear expectations

Time-conscious adult learners want to know what is expected of them with regard to completing their degrees. They expect their advisors to be clear and knowledgeable about degree requirements. Beyond advising, they want to be able to access institutional information when it is convenient to them, in a variety of methods including online and via email, fax or telephone. Timeliness of response is the key, and may challenge the “8:15 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.” mindset of administrative offices throughout many traditional institutions.

4. Feedback from instructors

Faculty who frequently teach adults are well acquainted with this expectation. Adults want formal feedback via graded assignments, but they also seek informal feedback as they progress through their courses. Many of them have not been in a classroom for years; often, their first attempts at college result in poor academic performance. Therefore, they lack confidence in their academic abilities and need reassurance. Sometimes, this need for feedback results in conflict between adult learners and their instructors. I often tell faculty who are new to our adult programs to be as clear as possible about how and when students can expect to receive feedback. Related to this is a strong disdain for assignments that may be viewed as “busy work.” Adults want to know what they are learning and how it relates to the subject matter and their overall lives. Instructors who can articulate the learning outcomes of their courses and relate them to broader degree program objectives are typically very respected by adult learners.

5. Acknowledgement of prior learning

Increasingly, adults want opportunities to receive credit for prior learning. I believe this stems from both personal and financial needs. On a personal level, adults want validation that what they have learned through their work and volunteer experiences matters. Similarly, they want to trim the total cost of their education, and with good reason: they are now largely paying for their education themselves. When I began working with adults in 1997, the vast majority relied on tuition reimbursement from their employers to cover their tuition. In our 2012 survey, only 22.75 percent of adults were using tuition reimbursement, compared to 31 percent in 2008. Similarly, reliance on loans is up from 52.3 percent in 2008 to 58.6 percent in 2012. Adults need, and want, to contain costs through prior learning opportunities.  At my institution, we are actively working to increase the number of courses that can be obtained through testing and portfolio options. We are particularly focusing on competency -based options.

The options available for us to address student needs continue to change rapidly through new technologies and partnerships but, at the core, the needs of our adult learners have not changed dramatically.

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Readers Comments

Rhonda White 2013/07/23 at 10:50 am

Interesting to know adult students’ needs haven’t changed, but perhaps we didn’t really need a survey to determine that. I would like to see the Noel-Levitz inventory, and similar surveys, ask adult students how we can best meet their needs instead of simply what those needs are. Some online or on-campus consultations might also be worthwhile. Results from Berling’s institution show many of those in higher education still don’t understand what adults are really looking for in their educational experience. The problem isn’t with Berling’s institution alone. We can all do better.

Natalie Miller 2013/07/24 at 9:21 am

In a way, I can appreciate the pragmatic approach many adult students apply to their education. There are financial and time considerations they have to make. At the same time, I struggle to understand why the focus is continually on what their needs are and how institutions can fulfill them. We don’t ask traditional-aged, first-time undergraduate students what their needs are and strive to accommodate them. We set parameters around what they need to know (course requirements) and evaluate their ability to learn it (examinations). Why is it we don’t do the same for adult students? It seems too many institutions are pursuing a producer-consumer style of relationship with adult students and, in the process, forgetting they, too, have mission statements and purposes they want to achieve.

LeAnn Akins 2013/10/11 at 4:20 pm

I agree with Rhonda. We know what adult learners need, but do we have a good idea of how to meet those needs? Have we asked them about this as much as we have asked them about those needs?

As an academic advisor, I want to help my students achieve their goals, but in order to do that, I need to know how to meet their needs, not just that they have them.

Peter Paulson 2014/05/30 at 1:23 pm

Thanks for the interesting article Victoria. Overall I really enjoyed your perspective. But I think the difficult part here is #2 (relevant degree programs).

While it’s great to look at the most popular degree programs I don’t think that’s an accurate way to determine what’s relevant. It’s like looking at the supply side of the skills gap instead of the demand. Isn’t that backwards?

For example, on our corporate blog Workforce 360 we spend a lot of time compiling information and data about career trends and requirements from the employer’s side. I think this side of the equation is more important and informative than trying to determine program relevancy by looking at popularity.

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