Published on 2014/08/01

Adults and the Higher Ed Experience (Part 1)

Adults and the Higher Education Experience (Part 1)
Online education offers a great deal of flexibility for adult students, but there’s value in on-campus programming when it comes to students’ sense of belonging and likelihood of retention.

The following is the first of a two-part email Q&A with Melora Sundt, executive vice dean and clinical education professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. Online education is regularly seen as the ideal option for adults looking to return to higher education; it’s flexible to their schedules and is — at a minimum — of a similar quality to face-to-face programming. A point up for debate, though, is whether the campus experience can add value for adult learners. In this interview, Sundt begins to dissect this issue and shares her thoughts on the value of on-campus experiences for non-traditional students.

1. How can adult students benefit from the more traditional, on-campus experience?

First, let’s establish some definitions. Each of these terms includes a diverse range of characteristics. By non-traditional, I’m thinking of students with any combination of these characteristics: older; working; living independently of their parents or perhaps even caring for older parents; having children of their own, perhaps being a single parent; returning to school from a long absence, such as child rearing or having completed military service; and attending part time.

By traditional, on-campus program, we mean a two- or four-year brick-and-mortar program. I want to be clear that the unit of analysis is the program, not the institution.

“Online” can mean a variety of internet-based learning environments, with the most common form being asynchronous instruction, in which students access and respond to material independently of one another, whenever they want. Other online programs use synchronous instruction that broadcasts a live lecture one-way. Students watch the live broadcast at a regular time and submit questions via chat, for example. Still another form, the one with which I have the most experience, uses flipped instruction — asynchronous material accessed at the student’s convenience prior to a scheduled, live webcam-based class during which students and faculty can see and hear each other.[1]

It matters that we distinguish these different types of delivery because the barriers, advantages and outcomes are not uniform across them.

For example, key issues for any student choosing between a traditional program and online program are effectiveness of learning (outcomes) and the completion rate. The evidence about these two indicators says they vary by delivery approach. Research has found the asynchronous and one-way delivery models, generally, to have lower average completion rates than traditional face-to-face (F2F) programs. The synchronous, live video delivery model has completion rates much like traditional F2F programs. And some hybrid programs’ outcomes surpass some traditional programs.

There are a number of reasons for the differences in learning outcomes and completion rates, including the quality of instruction and the motivation and self-efficacy of the student. In particular, the level of engagement matters, and we know particularly for the non-traditional students, feeling that they matter influences their engagement with their learning. Any program — online or F2F — has the potential, through small class sizes, caring faculty, responsive student services and outreach, to communicate to a student that he or she matters. It can be harder for asynchronous programs to communicate that care and concern. The interaction is different. On the other hand, the live synchronous programs have an easier time of it because of the nature of the virtual interaction — faculty and students can see each other, and relationships are easier to establish.

Perhaps the greatest advantage that traditional F2F programs have over most online programs for the non-traditional student is their ability to support the co-curricular experience, and therefore support the social learning that happens in college. We know traditional students experience significant social and emotional growth in college, and the majority of this growth is related to their experiences outside the classroom — interactions with friends, student organizations, faculty outside of class, living in the residence halls, etc.

On one hand, older non-traditional students may not want or need these experiences. But I’d argue there’s still benefit to being part of an intellectual community, and this  can be difficult for most online programs to create. It’s in those experiences — how the financial aid staff treats a student, a conversation after class with a faculty member — that the non-traditional student develops that feeling of mattering … or not. And we know that feeling of belonging and connecting is directly related to self-efficacy and retention.

– – – –


[1] Kimberly Ferrario, Corinne Hyde, Brandon Martinez and Melora Sundt, “An Honest Account of the Humbling Experience of Learning to Teach Online,” LEARNing Landscapes, v6 n2, Spring 2013. Accessed at

In the conclusion, Sundt discusses whether it’s possible for the on-campus experience to be replicated online for non-traditional students.

What Your Adult Students Want

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Impact of Online Shopping on Higher Education

Learn to implement eCommerce best practices and create a positive learning experience.

Read here

Readers Comments

WA Anderson 2014/08/01 at 12:25 pm

I think this piece demonstrates that it’s not the format that contributes to student success so much as the level of engagement they feel with the subject matter. That’s where the hybrid model seems to be producing the best outcomes, according to Sundt. The model works not because there’s a live element, but because there’s interaction and discussion during that live time, instead of just a lesson or lecture.

Tyrese Banner 2014/08/01 at 3:35 pm

I think we’ve mistakenly assumed that the “first choice” is always to do an in-person degree and that students only move online when their schedules or other responsibilities conflict with that pursuit. We often don’t really think about students who purposefully choose an online program. I’m interested to read the second part of this series as I’ve been giving thought to whether adults have anything to gain from the traditional on-campus model.

CK Lee 2014/08/01 at 3:52 pm

As a non-traditional student myself (nearly 10 years after high school) at a community college, I’m surprised at how much I appreciated the experiences outside the classroom on campus. But the importance is something I didn’t recognize until much later. Whether it was time to meet with instructors, spend time on-campus around other students as well as the opportunity to be a teaching assistant, the camaraderie was important to me. I think more specifically, there was a sociology professor that had created a number of extra-curricular activities that kept many students involved, doing volunteer work, trips to other communities to “study” diversity and such, in short learning was hands-on. These activities helped me realize my abilities and potential which, I had not fully realized prior to college – maybe its something that other non-traditional students face too?

John Mason 2014/08/04 at 4:32 pm

This whole issue is not so much about whether a course is on campus or off campus -it is really about whether a course is incorporating “engagement” with others.

We have always (for 35 years) integrated compulsory projects that force students to engage with the real world. This makes courses longer, more difficult, but more beneficial. Our feedback from graduates is that they feel very much engaged with the real world.

If a research task is properly qualified, quantified and assessed; a student cannot successfully complete it without engaging with people in the real world as well as their tutors/teachers at the school. If the college is more focused on producing fast tracked, courses, and making a profit from as many students as possible; it is easy to weaken the demands made on the student….they may still be able to learn facts and pass the exams; but the experience of interacting with others can tend to diminish.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *