Published on 2014/02/25

An Office of Their Own: The Key to Success for Today's Adult Students

An Office of Their Own: The Key to Success for Today's Adult Students
Developing an office dedicated to adult student success can be hugely beneficial to higher education institutions looking to better-serve this growing marketplace.
The evidence is clear, thorough and convincing. Adults aged 25 and older will, for the foreseeable future, be the fastest growing student population and the new majority on college campuses, while the 18 to 24-year-old students level off or even decrease in numbers. Colleges welcome this new majority status for adults, but will need to think beyond traditional ways of delivering services to re-entry adults. Many different roles compete for adults’ time, such as family, work, community responsibilities and, now, college.

These competing roles affect their status as college students, which can lead to retention issues. Adults who have been away from college for some time may be anxious about returning. This leaves them vulnerable, especially if colleges do not serve them well. Obstacles may push re-entry adults to give up and not return again. Frankly, colleges cannot afford to let this happen for at least two reasons:

(1)    Adults are now a huge market for colleges; and

(2)    Employers prefer formal education for hiring and promotion over on-the-job training

Mid-level professional jobs typically require at least an associate’s degree or higher. Adults with a degree will be strong candidates for jobs because, in addition to the degree they acquire, they tend to have a great work ethic, will be able to “hit the ground running,” will be loyal to their employer and have good work experience. In other words, they should be an employer’s dream. In view of these factors, colleges need to have an array of strategies to attract and retain re-entry adults.

The literature shows that having a separate office to serve re-entering adults is considered a very powerful strategy to increase retention among them. Some colleges do not have one centralized access point for adult students. Services for these students are scattered over several departments. This approach leads to frustration for both the adult students and their advisors. It is inefficient, ineffective and time consuming. The entry or re-entry process can be difficult for adults who have idiosyncrasies that require special and continuous help from the day of their arrival to the completion of their college program. They may, for example, need help navigating the application, enrollment and registration processes. Adults will feel comfortable knowing they have a place to go should an issue arise.

How will an office as the single point of entry to a college of the adult’s choice be structured, and how will it function? First, give this office a name of your choice. For the purpose of this article, I will name the adult office, “The Office of Lifelong Learning” (OLL). A Director and a Coordinator will be appointed. The Coordinator will be responsible for the day-to-day activities. The Director will have overall responsibility for the OLL, but will also have more detailed responsibilities. These responsibilities will be noted shortly. As generalists, both the Director and Coordinator will need to be especially aware of how other college offices function. There will be crucial times, however, when key personnel from other college offices will need to be physically present in the OLL or easily reachable by phone, e-mail, or drop in.

Key personnel would be: an admissions counselor, an academic advisor, a financial aid advisor, a veterans advisor, a representative from the registration office and also the student accounts office. It would also be advantageous to have a technical support person (or a secretary with good technical skills) as part of the team. Adults interested in attending college will first be referred to the Office of Lifelong Learning. If those on duty cannot serve a student, she will be directed to an appropriate office with the name, location, phone number and e-mail address of a specific person to contact. In addition, contact information will be posted in print form in the OLL.

The Director of the OLL will have these major responsibilities in addition to overall responsibility for the OLL:

  1. Keep the OLL vital—insure ongoing commitment by administration and other personnel involved with this office.
  2. Work with faculty to develop curriculum dealing with issues important to adults-one good example would be the development of curriculum appropriate to adult students.
  3. Partner with local companies to offer courses to employees on site—employer’s place of business.
  4. Create a special website with details about the OLL.
  5. Develop an electronic newsletter to be sent monthly to adults registered with the OLL.
  6. Appoint an advisory council to assure that the college is serving adults best.
  7. Develop a priority registration process for adults and advocate for a strong advisement component devoted to adults.
  8. Plan out various types of adult workshops.
  9. Investigate fast track degree programs for adults to include a weekend college.
  10. Two year college directors should work with four year adult colleges that have degree completion programs offered in a fast track mode to insure a smooth transition for interested students.
  11. Initiate intensive marketing—broad public outreach to new adult candidates, and targeted outreach to adult students close to graduation.

In this paragraph, let me add a few final thoughts, and then offer three goals that the Director of an established OLL should work on and accomplish with the help of administration, faculty, advisement office, admissions office and really all members of the college community. One huge message from all the literature is that adults have been a growing presence on college campuses and it appears that they are here to stay. As mentioned early on, adults are a huge market for colleges. Your college needs to be prepared to offer programs that will attract them and once enrolled to provide incentives to keep them until they graduate. Good advisement and good customer service are critical to them. They have enough insecurity about coming back to college especially lack of confidence. While cost is important to adults, it is not always the primary reason for attending a particular college.

Now to the goals:

Goal #1: Establish an Office of Lifelong Learning that will allow the college to provide high impact adult services for the entire time that adult students are in attendance.

Goal #2: Eliminate obstacles that adults encounter as they work through their degree program.

Goal #3: Create a climate that motivates adults to remain in college until they attain and exceed their educational goals.

These three goals, I believe, spell Student Success!

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Readers Comments

Kendra Willis 2014/02/25 at 1:20 pm

Sigismond’s suggestions for the adult learning office cover a breadth of issues, some of which are policy related and some of which deal with programming or services. I’m not sure concentrating this range of functions within one unit/office is feasible or wise. I would think some of the strategic (policy) work, such as developing accelerated degree tracks, should come from the executive. I envision the adult learning office as more ‘customer oriented’ — a single window of contact for enrollment, financial aid and course selection assistance.

Lisa C 2014/02/26 at 11:34 am

Great ideas for the Office of Lifelong Learning. I think it’s important for this office to have strong relationships with other units on campus so that, as Sigismond suggests, external staff can be brought in to assist with complex adult student issues. While staff in the OLL should have basic knowledge of programs and services out there, sometimes a ‘subject matter expert’ is needed to ensure the student is getting the best advice and support.

Karen 2014/03/03 at 5:35 pm

A single office of Lifelong Learning is an interesting idea, but as Kendra mentioned it could be rather complex in execution. I am currently working on a new article for an adult education magazine (other than EvoLLLution where I do sometimes contribute) about Lifelong Learning. I believe campuses must first embrace the philosophy, beyond lip service, and then the logistics will be easier. The steps Sigismond outlines require a lot of cross-department and cross discipline coordination which I believe will be impossible without a unified vision of what the school is offering.

Denise Hart 2014/03/03 at 6:20 pm

Interestingly, many in higher education have recognized the needs of the adult learners dating back to the 70’s and have been committed to the goals as delineated above. There are a number of professional associations that support the efforts of those who oversee programs for the adult learner, and include the variety of options for those students including prior learning assessment, accelerated course schedules, etc.

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