Published on 2020/01/15

The EvoLLLution | Taking Initiative To Bring Back Adults
As postsecondary credentials are more important than ever to labor market success, and given the reducing demographic of traditional learners, it’s essential for colleges and universities to find ways to serve adults with some college experience but no credential.

As the traditional student population decreases, there’s a greater need to serve adults who don’t have a degree but have some college experience. This demographic covers over 26.5 million Americans, but recruiting and serving them takes conscious effort and focus. In this interview, Buffy Tanner, Matt Bergman and Tracy Robinson discuss the importance of consciously designed returning adult initiatives, and reflect on how institutions can properly address the needs of these learners.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the characteristics of an effective returning adult initiative?

Buffy Tanner (BT): Overall, an effective initiative considers the fact that adult learners are not what we think of as traditional: 18-22 year olds, empty vessels just waiting to be filled with knowledge, who live on or near campus, work on campus (or off campus, but minimal hours) with unblemished financial histories and whose schedules enable them to take classes whenever they happen to be offered, with time to stand in line to receive student services.

Effective adult initiatives combine accessible support services, adult-friendly class schedules, and academic recognition of prior learning.

Matt Bergman (MB): Another characteristic of an effective returning adult initiative is relevant and actively engaging content. A study that I conducted with alongside my colleagues identified active and relevant content as a significant predictor of adult student success. While this is not surprising, it is a finding that must be considered by those who interact with returning adults. If our returning adult learners do not find the curriculum to be relevant to their current or future work ambitions, they aren’t likely to engage at the same rate as those courses that connect research to practice and offer direct benefits to them in their work roles.

Alongside the relevant content, institutions should grow and strengthen their acknowledgement of Prior Learning Assessment (PLA). When students are valued for the college-level and credit-worthy learning that they bring to the academic setting, they assimilate more effectively. Consider an individual who hasn’t taken a college course in 15 years. If that person is recognized for valid learning, they feel a greater sense of connection and value to the institution. Consequently, institutions of higher learning need to find ways to standardize PLA practices so more students can reconnect with their academic dreams of finishing a degree.

Tracy Robinson (TR): An effective returning adult initiative must have a support network that meets the adult student where they are, whether they are returning with 15 earned credit hours of 90 earned credit hours. For so many adult students, they want to return to finish their degree but they often do not know how to take the first step.

In higher education, we often use terms like Bursar and Registrar like everyone understands what that all means. We must stop talking and doing what we have always done and make the path to finishing a degree as transparent as possible. Returning adult students need to see the finish line as clearly as possible. We need websites that are easy to understand (not full of academic jargon), academic advisors who can help adult students make sense of what they did in the past and evaluate all the different paths to degree completion that are available, administrators who understand that policies and procedures may need to be rewritten for this population (example: academic forgiveness), and concierges/coaches who help navigate a successful path alongside the student all the way to graduation.

Evo: What are the roadblocks in the way of launching a returning adult initiative?

BT: Class schedules, especially at public institutions, have historically been scheduled around instructors’ preferences or when rooms are available. Additionally, the traditional semester (or quarter) system has been based on the annual agricultural cycle, with coursework in the summer either not offered, or optional.

Adult learners, or students of any age who must work full time at their job or at being a parent, need schedules that work for them. Our typical response to adult learners with busy lives is to suggest that they take one or two classes at a time. Those classes may or may not be online, but they also could be in the evening or during the day. We leave it up to the student to make it work with their workplace or with their families. If a student takes one class at a time in a traditional semester system, and doesn’t have the option of summer coursework, it takes them 10 YEARS to complete a “two-year” associate degree. If they are able to take summer courses, they can shave that down to SEVEN years. This assumes they take exactly the right classes and can register for the right class each term.

There are major problems with this scenario. Taking only one class at a time means students can’t access federal financial aid. They are missing out on years of earning potential until they complete their degree, and the end is so far away, it can be easy to get discouraged. Institutions need to create alternative scheduling so that students can be full-time—or at least part-time—each term to access aid and make adequate progress toward their degree. Two classes per eight-week block in a traditional semester or one class every month accomplishes this with the added bonus that students only have to concentrate on one or two subjects at a time, which is more manageable when an adult learner is already juggling work, family, kids’ soccer practices, caring for an aging relative, etc.

The other piece of the class scheduling puzzle is ensuring that all courses required for a student’s degree are offered in the alternative scheduling format (compressed classes in a modality that works for the local adult population).

Lastly, when adults are ready to jump into the coursework, the institution needs to ensure that they can start within a reasonable time frame, not just in January and August.

MB: As Buffy mentioned, our adult learners face a range of “competing responsibilities” that impact their overall life load. If the load gets too heavy, and higher education institutions are unable to provide those flexible and convenient services and resources mentioned above, we will continue to see declining enrollment among this population. However, if we as colleges and universities commit to a solidarity movement that creates flexible, accelerated and compassionate services, adults will find a way to incorporate degree completion into a priority for their growth and development.

TR: One of the biggest roadblocks is finding the returning adult students and presenting them with a compelling reason to return and finish their degree. Recruiters cannot simply go into a venue like a high school to find a captive audience of potential students. Therefore, institutions must reimagine their approach to reach returning adult initiatives. Partnering with local employers, community agencies and faith-based organizations can be effective. Also, make sure that the traditional student recruiters are aware of the returning adult initiatives too because they are having conversations with parents on a regular basis and that parent may be a potential student.

In terms of messaging, we often get this wrong. You cannot invite someone to return to a place that has not changed since they last left it or to a place that does not have the support network in place to help them be successful. Institutions must do the work upfront to know how they can support the returning adult students. If you promise something and don’t deliver, they will leave again in a heartbeat.

Evo: How do postsecondary institutions benefit from returning adult initiatives?

BT: We have found at our institution that some of the pieces we implemented for adults are trickling over into our general population. Adults needed access to student services after 5 p.m., so our program office stays open until 6 p.m. Now, our Admissions and Records/Financial Aid office stays open until 6 p.m. as well, as it turns out younger students also benefit from accessing student services after 5 p.m.

We developed compressed, eight-week classes, many of them online for the students in our adult initiative program. We started hearing from our general population students—who happened to enroll in those sections—that they enjoyed the pace of those classes and want more. Additionally, the course success rates in those sections (for program students and general population students) are significantly higher than the average course success rates campus wide. Faculty are discovering that classes they previously had hesitation about offering online were possible, and that there is a demand for them. Certain general education classes that had never before been offered online (public speaking, accounting, science with a lab) were developed for the program because our adult learners needed the flexibility of online. These sections of classes brought students out of the woodwork from our more rural areas (and throughout the state) who previously had not been able to access these classes.

Lastly, because we carefully map out the required classes over the course of a 24-month period for each cohort of students, we can see exactly which and how many sections of each class we need in each eight-week block. While the cohort pathways in our adult initiative utilize a very specific sequence of classes, this type of structured scheduling is helping inform our campus’ overall guided pathways redesign effort.

MB: We have found numerous benefits to the University of Louisville because adult learners are often more likely to tell you what they think. I can’t begin to count the enormous amount of feedback that I receive each semester. They are appreciative and candid when supplying responses to their experience. While it may not happen in surveys, they will gladly call or email to give a synopsis of a course, activity, assignment, program or event.

Adult learners are often well-placed in their professions and they are using the additional educational attainment as a springboard to their next promotion. This fact coupled with finishing a long-held dream of completing a degree also positions them as quicker donors to your institutions. Think about it, if you are a 21-year-old graduate, you need close to 10 years to establish your professional identity, whereas adult learners, in many cases, have many years of experience and solid earning records. If institutions provide relevant, rigorous and research-based curriculum that directly impacts their professional development, the philanthropic behavior will follow more quickly than that of their traditional counterparts.

TR: When we help returning adults finish what they started and earn that often elusive degree, we are changing the trajectory of those students, their families and our communities. It is the right thing to do! We all win! Period and drop the mic. My work with our Finish Line Program students at the University of Memphis has been the most rewarding experience that I have ever had. Completion really matters to people—most especially to people who had given up on the dream of completing. As a public institution in Tennessee, we directly benefit by each and every graduation in our performance funding formula for state appropriations. The days when we were measured by only enrollment numbers are long gone, and almost every state has a stated goal for degree attainment. Effective programs for returning adult students are crucial to helping us reach those goals.

Evo: How can partnerships with local industry or government bodies help support the success of such initiatives?

BT: Partnerships with industry are particularly effective in determining which academic programs to reconfigure for adult learners. Unless your entire campus has decided to shift to a compressed, alternative calendar, the institution will have to decide which programs to offer. A partnership with an industry that guarantees a pipeline of students can be the incentive needed to pilot the initiative, test the waters, and determine if other programs could be developed. Government bodies can be excellent marketing partners to help get the word out about new opportunities for adults. Government entities can also be industry partners if the local city or county offices need social workers or middle managers, for example.

MB: Industry partnerships will be an integral component of the future of higher education. When organizations identify a gap in knowledge and skills that needs to be filled within their organizations, colleges and universities can develop shorter or more comprehensive programs for those companies if there is a critical mass of learners who will pay tuition (hopefully through $5,250 of yearly tuition assistance). We are just scratching the surface of the potential across the nation. Arizona State University, Southern New Hampshire University, Penn State World Campus, Purdue Global, Western Governors, and many others are figuring this out on a global scale.

As the fight for talent continues to be a challenge, organizations will look more and more to colleges and universities to establish content that will help them develop and retain their talent. Also, this effort creates a much more affordable approach to getting an education for the end user. These institutional partnerships can provide group discounts that end in zero debt for individuals that enroll and graduate with new competencies to help their organizations’ bottom lines.

TR: Partnerships are crucial to the success of returning adult initiatives. Industry partners are a valuable recruiting tool for institutions particularly when paired with comprehensive tuition assistance programs. At the University of Memphis, we have been able to work with many of our corporate partners to assess their training for Prior Learning Credit which helps students save time to degree completion and helps the corporate partner save money through their tuition assistance programs. When you can tell employees that their learning experiences through corporate training can convert to college credit, it becomes a compelling recruiting message. We have also worked with partners to change their assistance programs from tuition reimbursement to the employee after the semester is over to a direct bill from the institution to the corporation. This change eliminates the need for the employee to pay the tuition upfront at the beginning of the semester, which is a common roadblock for returning adults who have many financial obligations to juggle.

Evo: What advice would you give leaders looking to launch a returning adult initiative at their institution?

BT: Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Look at what already exists. Creating programs that work for adults does not mean that you have to sacrifice academic rigor. Public institutions have been hesitant to look at the models created by for-profit institutions, but for-profit institutions have been successful in large part because they were the first to recognize that most public institutions did not offer education in a format that worked for the adult learner.

Alternative schedules, comprehensive student support in the form of a dedicated advisor/counselor, and recognition of prior learning can be offered in conjunction with the same academic rigor that is expected from our 18-22-year olds. The last advice I would give to educational leaders is to remember that our 18-22 population is dwindling. We will not be able to fill our classes and our campuses if we rely solely on 18-22 year olds. The Lumina Foundation’s Stronger Nation Report shows there are over 26.5 million adults with some college but no high-quality credential. Our local experience with our community college’s service area has demonstrated that these students are eager to return and complete their degree, but only if it works with their lives.

MB: As my friend Sarah Ancel at Student Ready Strategies says, we need to stop saying, “We will give you another chance” and start saying, “Please give us another chance.” Institutions have changed dramatically in the last 10 years. What we thought of online learning 10 years ago and what we think of it today is in stark contrast. While there are still skeptics throughout higher education, we now see Ivy League schools offering fully online degrees. The model exists to develop strong programs that don’t sacrifice quality. Education can be delivered in a hybrid, in-person, or online approach and make a dramatic impact on our learners’ lives. We just need to make the general public aware of our flexible and convenient programs that connect directly with their ambitions for work and life. If we can do that, we will have an influx of people who come back to finish what they began last year or long ago.

TR: Do not get overwhelmed by the volume of the work. When we look at numbers like 26.5 million adults with some college but no credential, you wonder where to even start.

Start with your own numbers first. Find out who is leaving your institution without completing and start a recruit-back campaign. If you can get some funding to provide a scholarship for the first class, then you really have something going. If you don’t have funding, then brainstorm about what you could offer—perhaps a waived admissions application fee, specialized advising to help them compare their earned credit toward several degree paths at the institution, or maybe priority registration to ensure they can get those last few classes needed to finish their degree.

My best piece of advice is to empower your staff to serve as advocates for the returning adult students. This population needs a trusted person to guide them along the path to completion. They will do the work, but they need a guide. We call our advisors in our Finish Line Program completion concierges because we want the adult students to come to us for everything.

It is not effective for any student to stay on hold with an office for 20 minutes to ask a question and then be told that they didn’t call the right office and cannot get the question answered. It is especially troubling to the adult student who used up 20 minutes of their lunch break. We have to cut through the noise for our returning adult students and make our processes understandable so that they can spend their time focusing on the academic part of their completion journey instead of jumping through all of our administrative hurdles.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Key Takeaways

  • With so many adults in need of a postsecondary credential, it’s essential for colleges to define who they are best-positioned to serve rather than trying to create something that works for everyone.
  • Any returning adult initiative must simplify the more burdensome bureaucratic processes and deliver flexibility in program design and scheduling.
  • Institutional messaging needs to evolve to meet the needs and expectations of modern learners. Students won’t come back to a place if it hasn’t changed since they left.