Published on 2013/07/30

Five Changes to Increase Adult Student Success

Five Changes to Increase Adult Student Success
Adult students are returning in droves to colleges and universities across the country, and institutions must make some critical changes to support these students’ success.

Enrollment trends have changed the face of American higher education.  The average age of the undergraduate student has crept up to around 25. These older students are more likely to have family and work obligations. Adult students also have different motivations, with a greater focus on immediate application of classes. To attract and serve these students, colleges must explain the importance of general education requirements. Institutions and faculty must change their approaches to the classroom and student services.

1. Defense of the Liberal Arts Approach

General education requirements in colleges are commonly viewed as obstacles to be “gotten through,” rather than as integral parts of an education. A baccalaureate degree is not intended or structured as job training, but as broad-based education. This becomes more important in the quickly changing economy of the 21st century. A narrow training focus may help graduates find jobs immediately, but it is not likely to provide them with the thinking and learning skills that will help them see trends and future developments in their industries.

Liberal arts-educated workers bridge the earning gap between themselves and their narrowly-trained counterparts, in majors such as engineering and accounting, in a few years. Such workers tend to reach management levels at equal or greater rates, regardless of the industry. They also have lower unemployment rates and tend to be unemployed for shorter times during recessions. Colleges must improve our defense of the motivations and benefits of liberal arts education. We need to explain and reinforce these ideas throughout our educational programs, not just in the general education courses.

2. Pedagogy to Andragogy

Adult students may return to college with some fear based on their time away from the classroom.  They may see themselves in competition with traditional-aged students, who are fresh from the K-12 system and are used to the educational grind. Adults returning to undergraduate studies from the work world have met different types of deadlines and generally have been working with very clear success criteria. In the classroom, grading criteria are frequently perceived as more mysterious and subjective, which can intimidate or discourage the returning adult. Also, a returning adult at the undergraduate level is more likely to have been less successful in school previously. This fact can further reduce their confidence in the classroom.

One of the most important changes is classroom delivery by faculty: a shift from pedagogy to andragogy. Adults with work and independent life experience should not face the same approaches as “traditional” college students, who come directly from secondary education. Faculty need to use approaches that honor, build on and allow for connections with adults’ practical and significant experiences. This change could help to build the confidence of adult students, while simultaneously enriching classroom interactions.

3. Hybrid/Blended Classes

To help many adult students meet their family and work obligations, colleges should consider hybrid/blended classes. This could ease the time pressure on students by allowing them to move discussions online. Testing under proctored conditions is possible, so the students’ time on campus could be devoted to more active learning experiences. Reformatting classes as hybrids will help colleges make the shift toward andragogy. Adult students require and even expect less structure in the coursework than do traditional-aged students. The online portion of the class honors the self-reliance more typical of the adult student. At the same time, the in-class portion of the course provides support for adults reentering the classroom. The combination of support and challenge will help them meet their goals with more effectiveness and confidence.

4. Academic Calendar

Another related practice to help adult students is the academic calendar. Most institutions use a Fall/Spring semester and Summer “off” calendar. This plan simply extends the degree completion time for adult students, reducing adult student persistence rates. Adult students benefit from summer semester schedules that provide opportunity for a full class load. A calendar change would require changes in federal financial aid regulations, making this change slightly more challenging for colleges.

5. Student Support

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, adults need significantly different types and degrees of support to meet their educational goals. Class scheduling is one aspect of that support. Just as important is keeping the counseling, financial aid and other offices open during the times adult students would be using them. The standard working day for faculty, administration and staff must change as these students become the majority. Essential student service offices or an information desk must be open whenever a college offers classes on campus, and into the late evening hours, if the curriculum involves a large online component.

Additionally, many programs designed to engage students in the life of the college fail to attract adult students. A survey of this population may help to accurately determine the adult students’ needs for student services. For example, more colleges are providing day care options.

Making these changes will help adult students find greater success in their return to the classroom. The huge enrollments in for-profit institutions show adults use many of these changes as college selection criteria. The relatively low retention rate of for-profits shows they have not implemented the changes as effectively as required. If public and non-profit colleges do not begin to make these changes, we surrender the initiative and a vital segment of the future student population.

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Readers Comments

Tyrese Banner 2013/07/30 at 7:59 am

Changes to the academic calendar are vital but often overlooked. It’s surprising to me that institutions are willing to move programming online or consider hybrid/blended courses, yet ignore that one of the greatest barriers to finishing a degree quickly is the traditional two-semester-with-summer-off model. I agree with Uhlenkamp that changes to student aid and institutional funding models would likely have to be made, and that this is a rather large undertaking. However, it’s necessary to allow for greater access for adult students.

Jeff P 2013/07/30 at 4:16 pm

I’m not sure how Uhlenkamp reached the conclusion liberal arts graduates are closing the earnings gap with their counterparts educated in the STEM disciplines. Even if they have lower rates of unemployment, one has to wonder what type of employment these liberal arts grads are getting. Are we talking about low-end jobs that don’t require a postsecondary credential? Are these jobs relatively secure — permanent, with benefits — or are they precarious? There seems to be quite a bit Uhlenkamp isn’t saying. I have yet to see a definitive, evidence-based case for liberal arts education.

Dr. Tom Phelan 2013/08/06 at 9:38 am

Though the claims may need some validation, there is no doubt in my 40+ years of career work, liberal arts education is far superior to career-based training. STEM employees have great difficulties transitioning to higher paying managerial positions where people skills, judgment and decision-making are part of everyday work. Many make the transition with additional education, but liberal arts graduates often can advance using what they have learned about life from their liberal studies.
In my opinion, one can’t fully benefit from learning the principles of science, technology, engineering and math without a greater understanding of history, the arts, human behavior and communication.

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