Published on 2013/02/04
Three Ways Adult Students Benefit Their Institutions
Far beyond revenue generation, adult students have a number of positive influences on the higher education institutions they attend. As such, colleges and universities should take steps to ensure adults feel welcome on their campuses.

What do adult and non-traditional learners bring to the university? Amid all of the dialogue about what a university education brings to adult and non-traditional learners, this question is frequently left unexplored and its subject, underappreciated.

The most easy, pragmatic and cyclical responses to the question focus on growth and revenue. Given the current financial climate, revenue generation is frequently the first thought that comes to mind, but if it is the only thought, the university almost certainly will do its students and itself a critical disservice.

I have outlined three major areas where I think adult and non-traditional students provide the most value to their college or university.

1. Adult Learners Feed Our Missions For many universities, adult and non-traditional learners represent the vast majority of the school’s intended service population. It is through teaching these learners that we achieve our raison d’être and meet the legitimate expectations of our funders and the communities that depend on us. Non-traditional, adult, part-time, non-credit seeking and non-residential learners now represent the majority of learners and, in time, we will think of them as our traditional learners.

Embracing the adult learner is an important part of maintaining an institution’s relevance, regardless of its mission.

2. Adult Learners Force Creativity and Change In many ways, universities with a legacy of serving adult learners are traditionally ahead of the curve, sometimes by decades. Adult learners tend to be overwhelmingly and disproportionately part-time or full-time workers. Their life circumstances have created demands for different services, normally providing more convenience and creative teaching and service options. After all, both distance and online learning grew to meet the needs of non-traditional learner populations.

Necessity has proven to be the mother of invention. For those universities that provide excellent experiences to their adult learners, necessity has driven them to create workflows and services that meet the convenience needs of adult learners, and for those institutions committed to having their adult learners be important parts of the university community, creative use of technology has been essential. Over time, the convenience and creativity we have provided to our adult learners have become expected by all learners.

3. Adult Learners Provide Diversity The adult learner potentially contributes to the diversity of the student body in ways that include, but extend beyond, traditional categories of diversity. Frequently having lifetimes of experiences, adult learners offer unique and unexpected insights in classes and connections with communities, other organisations and institutions.

In many ways, it is this diversity that has changed the shape of adult-serving colleges and universities and continues to point toward the broad changes that are happening around us.

Ultimately, more than anything else, adult and non-traditional learners provide the institutions who serve them well with the impetus for meaningful change and the opportunity for continued relevance. In our service to non-traditional learners, we naturally refer to what is on the horizon, while maintaining connections with our educational missions, our communities and a broad array of funders that see higher education as an important part of addressing the needs of a complex and dynamic society.

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Readers Comments

Henry Smalling 2013/02/04 at 6:53 am

I agree with the article, particularly the second point about adult learners forcing institutions to be creative. Adult learners’ needs may be similar to the needs of younger students; for example, like adults, many young students balance part-time work with full-time studies and may require flexibility in their programs. Thus, when services and innovations are developed to meet adult students’ needs, but offered broadly on campus, everyone can benefit.

Stephen Gotti 2013/02/04 at 11:21 am

Another area where adult learners provide value is in connecting the classroom to the ‘real world.’ This could be in the form of providing a valuable link or networking opportunity to traditional-age students, or it could be demonstrating how classroom material relates (if at all) to what’s done ‘out there.’ This is insight other students would be sure to find useful.

Xavier Fleming 2013/02/05 at 1:54 am

This is an important article. It is true that adult learners’ contributions are often forgotten — maybe because they tend to vary depending on the type of adult learner, so they aren’t generalized, and they may often be low key. For example, we are able to discuss traditional-age students’ contributions in the form of extracurricular activity, but perhaps not adult learners’.

Where adult students may play an important role is in acting as mentors in the classroom, a role that might not be easily recognized but nevertheless significant.

Ken Udas 2013/02/05 at 10:43 pm

Thank you for your comments. As pointed out in the above comments, I also think that the idea that adult and otherwise “non-traditional” learners bring a range of benefits to the “classroom,” other facets of the university community and beyond. I clearly understated this in the article, but think that it is important in terms of the university’s capacity to take advantage of what these (and all) learners bring. This, I believe, points to the importance of awareness building activities embedded in services, professional development, orientation, and other forms of outreach. It all seems rather natural (a source of pride) in some college and university cultures.

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