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Rethinking Student Services to Support Adult Learners

Co-Written with Eric Johnson | Assistant Director for Policy Analysis and Communications for the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid, UNC Chapel Hill

The EvoLLLution | Rethinking Student Services to Support Adult Learners
Higher education leaders need to work harder to ensure their institutions understand and meet the needs of the growing population of adult learners both inside and outside the classroom.

The fundamentals of higher education aren’t any different for adult learners than for traditional-age students. Reading, researching, thinking, analyzing and discussing—the core of learning doesn’t change based on age.

But the overall college experience for adult learners—the support services, the extracurricular opportunities—should be distinct. Adults are at a different place in their lives, with different needs and commitments than 18- to 24-year-olds. For adult students on a physical campus, that might mean easier parking, night time class schedules, or even child care. As adult learners become a larger portion of the college-going population, universities and community colleges are getting better at providing the tailored support they need.

The distinct needs of adult students extend into the online world as well. It’s true that online courses can be more accessible and more flexible, but that doesn’t mean the overall experience fits easily into the lives of working adults. It takes intentional design to make online education truly accessible for all ages.

Within the University of North Carolina system, where 47 percent of our students took at least one online course last year, we’re starting to think more carefully about how to keep high-quality online coursework within reach of working adults. That means being creative and thoughtful in shaping the student experience.

Consider library services. It’s easy to assume that all of our students can easily access digital textbooks, especially for online courses. But adult learners may live in a house with a shared computer, or in a rural area where internet access is spotty, or work a job where they can’t carry around a laptop. For long hours of dense reading, books still work best for many people. Recognizing that need, UNC Charlotte has designed library services specifically for adult online learners. Books are lent by mail with free shipping—they come with a return envelope—and librarians are available for live-chat and texting help 24 hours a day through a state-wide consortium.

Schools are also rethinking how they offer academic advising to adult learners. Many academic departments require advisor meetings before a student can enroll in upper-level courses—an easy enough drop-by for traditional students, but a heavier lift for adult learners. Allowing virtual meetings, and making them available outside of regular work hours, keeps a requirement from becoming a barrier.

Financial aid counseling presents similar issues. Do forms have to be signed and returned on paper, or are digital signatures accepted? Are consultations available by email or late-night chat to accommodate students who work during the day?

Individually, these service tweaks may not seem like much. But “micro-frustrations” can add up, especially for adult learners who already have to find extra energy for school—squeezing in classwork during a lunch break or after kids have gone to bed at night. College should be hard—it’s supposed to challenge and stretch students. But it should be hard in ways that are meaningful and relevant to the educational mission. Bureaucratic hassles are an added tax on time and patience, and that can make the difference for student success.

Regular user experience audits are a great way to find and solve those hassles before they impact students. Test out the entire online learning process—not just the software or the coursework, but the entire experience from registration to graduation. Problems often arise in the spaces between different offices—financial aid and the cashier, academic advising and the registrar—and that can make it hard for administrators to spot trouble. Viewing the process through the eyes of a student can make it easier to identify challenges.

The good news about micro-frustrations is that they can usually be fixed with micro-solutions. Allow employed adults to opt-out of a mandatory career services session, for instance, or accept online payments without an additional processing fee. Making those adjustments doesn’t require enormous resources or staff time. It’s mostly a matter of priority, of remembering that there’s a whole population of students who aren’t on campus and don’t have the free time of a traditional student.

We need more college graduates nationwide, and we’re only going to get them if we can make college fit within the lives and needs of a diverse population. Online learning gets us closer, but it has to be matched with thoughtful design of the whole educational experience.