Published on 2014/08/20
Three Keys to Keeping Your Boomers in Class with the Grades to Pass
By going the extra mile, higher education institutions can make a huge difference in the lives of older adults looking to complete a credential.
It’s high season on college campuses around the country as new student orientations prepare a new freshmen class for the coming semester at San Jacinto College (San Jac). I catch the eye of the young First Year Experience (FYE) leader as she leads her tour to a stop outside The N2L Outreach and Support Center for the Adult Learner.

I open the door mid-sentence, “… she founded for our older students. N2L stands for ‘Never Too Late.’ She was 55 when she started at San Jac and 60 when she graduated from The University of Houston.”

“And I’m 67 now,” I chime in, “having the time of my life helping other adults discover what I did here at San Jacinto College; that it’s never too late to be who you might have been. The quick answer to who we serve is students 25-plus, but the full answer is any student assuming adult responsibilities. A 19-year-old single mom? An 18-year-old guy working 40-plus hours a week? We’re here for them, too. Anyone who’s juggling more responsibilities than you can count or has been out of school more years than you’ve been alive yet somehow finds the courage to walk the halls with you guys — that’s the student we’re here to support in any and every way we can.”

I go on with my spiel, extolling the Center’s services, throwing in a laugh line at my expense (this is a tough crowd) and emphasizing, “The coffee pot’s always on; first cup’s on the house and after that it’s a rip-roaring 25 cents a cup. We keep ourselves in coffee, cream, sugar, sodas, cookies and chocolate,” and wrap it up with, “While I don’t see too many faces old enough to pass my ID check, take one of my brochures home to a parent or grandparent or aunt or uncle. Tell them we have a Plus 50 Program, too. It’ll get them off your back and on their own … computer-wise. And whatever you do, don’t let them say they’re too old!”

Hands go up slowly, then more and more. There’s always a parent or two that either smiles and gives me a thumbs up or shyly reaches out to take my information. I leave them with a sincere, “Welcome to San Jac!” and don’t get back to my desk before one of those shy parents walks in.

“I just want to tell you,” is all she gets out before her voice breaks. Tissue boxes are ubiquitous within the Center so I hand her a fresh one, pour a gratefully-accepted cup of coffee and wait for her to go on. “I started at San Jac 20 years ago but never finished. It was just too hard with raising my family. There was nothing like this and, if there had been, I think I could have finished. I wanted to so much. Now, my last one is starting …”

And so is his 52-year-old mother, who joins the ever-expanding number of plus-50 students the N2L Center welcomes back to their futures at San Jac. While that’s no small feat, what’s even better is the number we’re retaining and seeing through to completion. As boomers, their sheer number would lead you to believe that wouldn’t be such a feat, until you consider those coming are those who missed the boatloads that have graduated with college degrees since I graduated high school in 1965. No matter where they fall on the timeline, it’s a long time to be standing on the pier, feeling left behind and too old to get on board.

So what does it take to put the wind in their sails again?

Without explicating our 52-year-old mother’s story, my 12-year experience from adult learner to adult learner specialist has revealed three key elements a campus can incorporate (relatively easily) that will bring boomers in and set them on the course to completion:

1. Find their champion.

What I needed most as a 55-year-old freshman was someone on campus who understood my fears and doubts, appreciated how hard I was working to overcome them and who could provide the moral support I so often needed. When I became a 61-year-old advisor/recruiter for adult learners, I determined to be this person for the students I served. To this day, at least once a day, a student of a certain age will stop me to say some version of, “I’m so grateful you’re here.” Identify and make available an advocate that plus-50 adults can relate to and ultimately trust. While age is definitely an asset, the most important attribute is life experience: someone who’s walked the walk. Younger advisors are definitely intimidating to them, but if they can talk the talk from having been an adult learner and display an affinity for helping older adults, the battle’s half won.

2. Find their place.

N2L started with 93 names I took while working as a meeter/greeter the summer I graduated. We met regularly in whatever room I could find. The list grew steadily and predicated the N2L Center’s opening in 2011. It currently averages 472 visits (one student could have multiple visits) per month. Of those visits, a third would be from plus-50 students. My roster of “N2Lers” has grown to 1,685 names and while it’s somewhat embarrassing, it’s no exaggeration to claim a large portion of those who have achieved their academic goals credit their success to the support they received through the N2L Center and its many alliances on campus.

3. Never underestimate the power of a pot of coffee.

As simplistic as this seems, it is what it is: the third key to keeping a plus-50 adult learner coming to classes and completing is the promise of a fresh, hot cup of coffee. Of course, it’s working subliminally, adding the most basic, fundamental aspects of this triad: it feels like, smells like, tastes like “home”.

There’s much more to what we do through our alliances with faculty and other departments and certainly our burgeoning Plus 50 Program, but these keys are what successfully unlocked the doors to learning for many of the adult learners at San Jac. Having realized that what goes on within the N2L Center is a microcosm of the macrocosm, I believe if our boomers are responding to these three easily-adapted keys, yours will too.

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Readers Comments

Janet Bicks 2014/08/20 at 1:20 pm

I just finished a diploma as an adult student. I agree with the points made in this piece. What made my transition from home to school easier (I was a stay-at-home mom and had never completed a postsecondary program before) was having a center for adult students where the staff had either done the same thing we were doing or could direct us to people who would understand our experiences. I enjoyed my classes and met a lot of people who were much younger than me, so sometimes it was nice to have a private space where I could read and take breaks by talking with other students about child care and mortgages, not the latest celebrity news or some big frat party.

Erwin Bedford 2014/08/21 at 11:36 am

The “pot of coffee” mentality is one more institutions should shift to. What Moon Winters demonstrates in this piece is that customer service and individualized attention matters. Atmosphere matters. The little things matter, and they go a long way to ensuring adult students feel welcome on campus. In this competitive market for non-traditional students, a high-touch level of service can help an institution truly stand out.

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