Visit Modern Campus

From Nontraditional to Essential: The Adult Learner Revolution

As modern learners look to institutions for credentialed education, it’s going to require higher ed to collaborate with industry, personalize offerings and provide targeted marketing to attract and retain these learners.

Adult learners are slowly but surely becoming the majority demographic within the higher ed space, and institutions must pivot to meet their needs. They can’t check a couple of boxes and call it a day—they need a strategic plan to attract adult learners. In this interview, Ayelet Zur-Nayberg discusses higher ed’s evolution to meet the adult learners’ needs, recruitment strategies to engage these learners and the impact this group can have on the institution.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How has higher education evolved its approach to meeting adult learners’ needs?

Ayelet Zur-Nayberg (AZN): There are two parts to this that may seem to contradict each other because, as we move forward in some areas, we move back in others. On one hand, we now understand the adult learners’ needs and can connect them to the workforce and help them be successful. We know how to elevate education to close equity gaps, social gaps and financial gaps in society.

On the other hand, according to the data, the population we serve is becoming younger and younger. This finding shows that we are not serving adult learners well enough for them to come to us because data show that millions of adult learners have no credentials. The labor force is changing rapidly, and even adults with credentials and degrees will need to be retrained because of technological advances.

Higher education will always play a role in adult learners’ lives. In the past, adult learners were considered nontraditional students better served by community colleges. And right now, though that population has great potential, their enrollment is still decreasing within our colleges. Recruitment is key to boosting enrollment, and higher education leaders are always looking for the low-hanging fruit. It is easier to recruit high school students than to make additional efforts to reach adult learners.

Evo: Why is it crucial for higher ed institutions to develop a recruitment strategy specifically tailored to adult learners?

AZN: From a community college perspective, adult learners are linked to the community, and our mission is to meet the community’s needs. We need to try our best to match the supply and demand when it comes to the skills Colorado’s workforce needs. We also have a responsibility to serve individuals to ensure they achieve their goals and find meaningful work in good-paying jobs.

High school students often have college days when institutions visit schools to showcase their various learning opportunities. Adult learners don’t have this luxury, and it can be difficult for institutions to reach a variety of adults, which is why developing more thoughtful strategies to reach these adult learners is important.

Evo: What are some of the obstacles to recruiting adult learners?

AZN: One of the biggest challenges is finding them. Research shows that there are four areas avenues to use: social media, general advertisement, college outreach and community outreach. There are also companies that provide data on the likeliness of adults going back to school. These data allow colleges to create targeted marketing campaigns that also close equity gaps.

In terms of other barriers, sometimes departments don’t talk to one another. Adult learners are making significant decisions in going back to school and need to know something as basic as their schedule. When academic departments don’t connect, a learner’s schedule may never match up in a way that fits their lifestyle or allows them to get all the credits they need to graduate. Adults need to know the specific time commitments and strategies for balancing their schedules with a full-time job. Wraparound services are critical to making sure these things are in place for them.

Evo: Are there any other strategies that higher ed leaders can use to engage adult learners?

AZN: There are three things adult learners care about: time commitment, cost and return on investment. To meet these needs, we must be very transparent about our programs—how long they will take and what they will cost. Adult learners also need to know the salary they’ll earn once they graduate. Is there growth in their field? Is there demand? Many people want this information upfront before committing to a certificate or degree program.

Evo: How does engaging adult learners and implementing some of the strategies you’ve mentioned impact the institution and the community?

AZN: In Colorado, there’s a mismatch between industry demand and available training. If higher education institutions guide their students and communities to in-demand fields with livable wages, they’ll be serving both the people and businesses in the community. States will be able to attract new businesses when they can provide businesses with educated workers who can do the jobs they need to fill.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add?

AZN: Higher education institutions are not doing a good enough job of translating people’s work and life experience into college credit using credit for prior learning (CPL). Many adult learners going back to school to gain additional education either don’t know about the opportunity to receive CPL or, if they do, find it confusing. I’ve met students who have gone through semesters of schooling before realized that their work experience could’ve saved them time and credits. Resolving this issue is a high priority for us at the Colorado Community College System as well as many of our colleges.

Last year, we piloted a project to increase awareness of CPL at one of our colleges. In addition to information in English and Spanish, students received vouchers to offset the cost of applying for CPL credits. Over 200 students took advantage of this opportunity, saving almost $270,000 in tuition. 84 of these students—most adult learners—graduated after receiving CPL credits through this pilot. We are now trying to scale this project at several additional colleges.

Higher education institutions must also do a better job of using clear terminology and helping adult learners navigate their education journey. Colleges must ensure adults know they are seen and that we recognize their experiences. Adult students should be validated for what they know and what they have accomplished.