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Adult Learners and their College Experience: The Challenges Colleges Face

The EvoLLLution | Adult Learners and their College Experience: The Challenges Colleges Face
Colleges and universities must adapt their policies and adopt new systems that are designed to serve the unique needs and demands of adult learners.

It’s interesting to consider what college instructors and professors are likely to see when they meet their new students in September. Will all their students be approximately the same age, or will they see a diverse mixture of age groups with a number of adult learners? It is difficult to estimate a response to these questions. The difficulty lies in the perception and the current enrollment data of individual colleges and universities and resultant behaviors of individual leaders at the institutions of higher education.

Current popular data suggests that the adult learner population is growing in the United States. Back in my college days (late 1960’s), one did not see any age group attend college aside from their own specific age group. The exception to this observation was the service men and women returning from the Vietnam War.

Today’s data points to a collective group of adult learners and traditional students occupying the same classroom. Common knowledge regarding adult learners estimates that approximately 40-55 percent of US classrooms have adult learners as students. The adult learners oftentimes fall into one of several categories, such as (but not limited to):

  • Returning students (took a break to raise a family)
  • New soldier students (new to college scene)
  • Students who seek education as a boost to job placement and/or promotion
  • Perpetual learners (those who love to learn and continue throughout their lives)
  • New students (first time at a college or university)

Traditional, 18- to 22-year-old students bring the usual angst and anxiety to the freshman classroom. Incoming freshmen struggle with as assorted collection of challenges which are often a continuation of their senior year in high school, such as popularity, studying for classes, adjusting to college life, continued parent support, and engaging in the college environment (through clubs, sports and social groups). Due to these traditional students, institutions have studied these traditional challenges and have developed offices and programs to assist the younger set. But what about the adult learners? Adult students face unique challenges that must be addressed by professors and deans of today’s higher education system. These sample challenges come in the following forms (or indicators):

  • Employment issues
  • Financial issues
  • Family demands
  • Self-esteem issues
  • Personal perceptions

My own experiences, both as a professor and dean, have afforded me insights and skills to successfully interact with and guide adult learners. This special group of college students does not seek special privileges. Their goal is to complete their individual programs in a timely fashion and accomplish their higher education goals. Their paths to matriculation could be a bit smoother if colleges and universities understood adult learners and what they can contribute to their schools.

In my opinion, the institutions of higher education need to radically adjust their programs. Perhaps a specialized staff member in a few specific student-serving areas—namely admissions, financial aid, student affairs and faculty development—would be the key to better serving adult learners.

As one reflects on the possible organizational changes needed to assist adult learners, let’s not forget the many contributions adult learners can bring to any campus, such as more focus (on goals and assignments), a history of meeting deadlines (from work experiences), a willingness to contribute to classroom discussions and a satisfaction from being engaged, as history of living (and sharing their experiential insights), a source of historical data (to share with traditional students), and an empathy of the stress of learning.

Perhaps now is the time for institutions to consider how to better serve these students, both in their policies and governance tools. The addition of support for adult learners in these tools could promote and guide future college enrollment plans. The forecast is for increasing numbers of adult students to enroll in colleges and universities. Our institutions of higher education need to be ready to accept and guide them.

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