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What Colleges Need to Do to Better Engage With Adult Learners

The EvoLLLution | What Colleges Need to Do to Better Engage With Adult Learners
Attracting and engaging with the non-traditional student population is critical for higher education institutions across the United States, especially given the decline in traditional-age learners, but they require a different style of engagement than institutions typically provide.

Student enrollments in American higher education institutions continue to grow at a modest but steady pace. Over twenty million students are now enrolled in graduate, undergraduate four-year, and two-year colleges.

Adult learners make up a substantial segment of the current student population, especially among part-time students. Students older than 25 years represent more than fifty percent of the part-time undergraduate student population, with many of these over the age of 35. In the four-year, for-profit colleges, 78 percent of the undergraduate student population is over 25.[1] As adults seek credentials to advance in their careers and as lifelong learning becomes more commonplace, the upward enrollment trend for this population will continue or accelerate.

It behooves colleges and universities to understand and support adult students who lead incredibly busy lives as they strive each day to schedule their education, job/career, and family responsibilities. The purpose of this article is to suggest strategies that colleges and universities can adopt to better engage and support their adult student populations.

Key Strategies for Institutional Leaders

Any discussion about accommodating adult learners should begin with a reference to Malcolm Knowles, who stressed the importance of curriculum and pedagogy geared to the needs of an older population. Knowles concluded that adults learned differently than children and young people mainly because they have a greater repertoire of experiences.[2] Faculty, student service personnel and course designers would do well to integrate Knowles’ concepts into academic programs and courses being developed for adult learners. Drawing from his work, here are several strategies that will help colleges engage more successfully with adult students.

First, adults bring real-life experiences to their studies. Curriculum, programs and courses should be designed to encourage adults to share their experiences with others through class discussions, group work and assignments.

Second, understanding that adults have job and family responsibilities, student counseling services should be geared, expanded and enhanced to meet these needs. Major life issues related to marriage, divorce, family illness and employment can be very difficult. Counselors who are understanding and able to offer advice to adults in these areas can prove critical to their success. Much of the research on college student attrition indicates that most students drop out not simply because of academics but because of personal, financial and employment pressures.[3] Furthermore, since so many adult students enroll part-time, they will have a much longer timeframe to complete programs of study and hence an increased possibility for personal issues to arise.

Third, since most adult learners lead incredibly busy lives, providing courses and classes that meet at convenient times (evenings, weekends, online and blended learning) is important. The popularity of online education, in particular, makes possible the availability of higher education opportunities that fit gracefully into an adult learner’s life. This method of course delivery works well for the adult student who lives many miles from a college or the urban professional who commutes to class but for whom time is a more limiting factor than geographical distance.

Fourth, class assignments that are student-directed and project-based activities such as essays and presentations (rather than testing and other forms of summative assessments), allow adult students to express more of what they know and to share their own life experiences. Group projects also can be very powerful in developing relationships with other students; these relationships may also foster a greater commitment to completing an academic program.

Fifth, colleges should consider collecting more data on their adult students at the time of admission. In addition to their profession, area of concentration and academic interests, probing more deeply into why they have chosen to enroll in an academic program at this point in their lives may prove useful. Important factors such as college transfer history, stop-out behavior, and past remedial education add significantly to understanding their potential for successfully completing an academic program. Also many adult students do not necessarily plan to complete a full academic program. They may want to take a course or two to hone already acquired skills or to experiment in a new academic area to which they are not ready to commit. If resources permit, a good strategy is to appoint a counselor or adviser at the time of admission to follow up on this information. It is also desirable that this counselor or adviser remains available to the student throughout their academic career.


American colleges and universities can be proud of their history in opening up higher education opportunities to diverse student populations. The community colleges and the for-profit sector have been especially successful in attracting and enrolling students who are non-traditional, including adults. The suggestions above are made with the hope that they will assist colleges to do a better job of helping these students to succeed and to achieve their education goals.

In a follow-up article to this piece, Anthony Picciano will elaborate on his fifth strategy—related to the importance of data mining and analysis—in greater detail.

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[1] Kena, G., Musu-Gillette, L., Robinson, J., Wang, X., Rathbun, A., Zhang, J., Wilkinson-Flicker, S., Barmer, A., and Dunlop Velez, E. (2015). The condition of education 2015 (NCES 2015-144). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC. Retrieved from

[2] Knowles, M.S., Holton, E.F., & Swanson, R.A. (1998). The adult learner (5th Edition or latest). Woburn, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann.

[3] Tinto, V. (2012). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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