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How Adult-Serving Institutions Can Stay Top-of-Mind as Adults Become the Next “Big Thing”

The EvoLLLution | How Adult-Serving Institutions Can Stay Top-of-Mind as Adults Become the Next “Big Thing”
Serving adult students takes more than offering traditional programs part-time or in the evenings—it’s critical to develop academic programs and support mechanisms that are consciously designed to meet the needs of adults.
Adult learners are an increasingly important demographic for modern colleges and universities to serve. Over 70 million adults across the United States have graduated university but have yet to earn a postsecondary credential, which is critical to success in the labor market. What’s more, given the constantly-changing nature of the labor market, working adults regularly need to return to college to update their skills and retool. In this interview, Matt Bodenschatz reflects on what it takes to attract and retain adult learners and shares some insights into how institutions that have always focused on adults can stand out to this audience as increasing numbers of colleges and universities find ways to bring them in.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are a few key characteristics or best practices that support improved access to postsecondary programming for adult learners?

Matt Bodenschatz (MB): In my experience, programs need to be developed based on the need and desire within the community rather than the ease or convenience of the provider. It seems obvious: Offer an in-demand product if you want to attract interest, but that isn’t always the case.

Once these programs are developed, they need to be offered in convenient ways: online, off-campus, evenings, weekends, accelerated, etc. And, of course, they need to be affordable. No matter how in-demand a program is, if courses are offered at inconvenient times or locations and/or cost too much, the majority of people with interest won’t have access.

Evo: Once enrolled, what critical steps must colleges and universities take to drive the persistence and retention of adult learners through the course of their chosen offering?

MB: Retention is a crucial focal point at most colleges and universities. While it’s great to have a successful admission campaign, an unsuccessful retention campaign can undo much of the good that was achieved. At Mount Aloysius College, we have a saying that “admission and retention are everyone’s job.”

So, how do you retain students?

Support! Active and informed student advising, access to disability services, and engaged tutoring are three areas that cannot be ignored. Catching a dropping GPA early can be the difference between a student matriculating through graduation or transferring to another college or university—and providing necessary disability services to students who express needs can prevent that dropping GPA in the first place.

Additionally, an engaged professional and peer-to-peer tutoring center equipped with writing specialists and study specialists, as well as the less-intimidating peer tutors, is an excellent way to provide learning experiences out of the classroom.

Evo: How could the increased use of microcredentials and certificates that stack into larger credentials improve attainment among adults?

MB: Anytime a college or university can offer short programs with value, the opportunity to enroll students grows. If these short programs—whether microcredentials or certificates—can stack to eventually yield a larger credential, such as a degree, the appeal grows immensely.

The key, though, is to market these short programs as stackable so students know they can earn more than the initial credential.

This stackability is also the downside of microcredentialing, though. It’s critical that these offerings remain consistent and without changes in order for stackability to be a possibility. Additionally, transparency is a must for colleges offering micro-credentials. They are not certificates and do not hold the same merit. As such, students must be made well aware of these in advance of enrolling.

Evo: How can colleges and universities that have expertise in serving adults ensure they’re heard above the “noise”—especially as creating access for adults has evolved into a hot market for postsecondary providers of all stripes?

MB: I think this goes back to programming. What programs are offered? What are the outcomes? How are they offered? If the programs offered are inconvenient, inaccessible, and overpriced, the college or university will blend in with the “noise.” At the end of the day, being successful in educating adults is achieved by listening to what they have to say and providing what they want/need.

Matt Bodenschatz contributed to Abound’s eBook, The Four P’s of Marketing, reflecting on these ideas and more. To download the eBook, please click here.

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