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What Adults Want: Defining the Top 10 Priorities for Adult Students

The EvoLLLution | What Adults Want: Defining the Top 10 Priorities for Adult Students
There are a number of factors both adult students and their education providers must consider before determining the best path to success.

This is the conclusion of Robert Lapiner’s two-part series, “What Adults Want.” In the first part, Lapiner provided an overview of the market of choices open to adults who wish to pursue a post-secondary undergraduate credential. In this conclusion, he discusses the state of the industry and shares his thoughts on the top 10 priorities for adult students looking to enroll in higher education.

The Obama administration’s impulse to develop mechanisms to “rate” undergraduate programs by output criteria is a belated but understandable response to help potential students and their families make informed decisions in choosing the program and place most likely to meet their needs. (Yes, “and their families” applies especially to older students who often head households of their own, for whom the investment in their education will often involve a sacrifice with an immediate impact.)

The President, some legislators in Congress and in statehouses across the country, and a gaggle of U.S. presidential candidates are also advocating a new right to free community college education as a way of “leveling the playing field.” I take issue with that hackneyed metaphor—which doesn’t even apply to baseball the American “national pastime,” where the pitcher’s mound has to be elevated. This concept may not even be “cricket” (a game that does require a level playing field). And here’s why: Community colleges are exceptional institutions. When I served as an ex officio representative on a board made up of presidents of California’s community colleges, I developed an unshakeable respect for them and their institutions, their mission of service, the analytical rigor and data-rich bases for decision making, and their sense of accountability to their many stakeholders. But in most states, community colleges practice true “open-enrollment,” and the great disparity in student preparedness among high school graduates has to be taken into account.

Should taxpayers fund remediation for learning skills that ought to have been acquired in secondary education? Or if students are admitted into truly equivalent demanding “lower division” associates’ programs that articulate as transfer programs into four year-institutions, what is the argument for funding the students in community colleges and not giving them choice to apply the subsidy at four-year institutions of their choice from the outset?

The point of these questions is that we have to be epidemiologists of our offerings, and sort out the highly varied learning opportunities available to and the challenges faced by those students, whatever their age, who are pursuing an educational path that cannot be met through full-time study in residence.

New forms of ratings, rankings, and even accreditation standards that recognize the differences—and the different objectives—among the programs for the adult undergraduate would be helpful. They need to look beyond the working criteria being developed by the projected database of the U.S. Department of Education, which involve pertinent questions of cost, student indebtedness, completion rates, or the evidence of post-graduation career advancement.

Whether prospective students are exploring online degree programs or seek to have a campus-based experience (or a combination of both), among the key substantive and qualitative factors they (and external evaluators) should look for are these:

1. Faculty

Are they full-time time faculty devoted exclusively to teaching their subject fields to the adult learner? Primarily adjuncts? What are their credentials? For professionally oriented program faculty, how current is their leadership experience and reputation in fields of practice? Are the faculty known for innovative pedagogy? How accessible are they?

2. Other students

Are students admitted as cohorts, or as individuals, allowed to make progress as best they can? If so, what are the restrictions/expectations on time-to-degree? Even if students are eligible to transfer credits from previous study or earn credit through prior learning assessments, are there still institution-specific standards that must be met in writing and mathematical reasoning or critical thinking—to help ensure student success? Can students pursue a bachelor’s degree? Associate’s only? Does the student community span generations, or do they cluster in their late 20’s or early 30’s? Is the population ethnically diverse? Are there international students? Will the admission criteria provide a certain uniformity of expectation?

3. Fields of study

Do the degree programs constitute a liberal arts education, a principally professional and career-oriented education, or a mixture of both? Can students change degree fields? Are there opportunities for credit-bearing, faculty-led overseas study experiences of varying duration?

4. Learning environment

Is the institution exclusively for the adult students, or is it dedicated within a larger entity? If the program is situated within a college or university structure that also serves full-time students in residence, are the adult students taught separately? Placed in classes among younger students? If the program is part of a larger institution, can students take courses in other schools or departments as an integral aspect of their collegiate experience? Whether online or in person, what are the average and modal class sizes, and the student to faculty ratios? For online programs, are there structured opportunities for students to meet with each other and their faculty face-to-face over the course of their studies?

5. Support services

Are career-guidance and job placement capacities in place, with particular sensitivity to the needs of older students who are likely to be working already? Do the academic advisers specialize in serving adult learners, whether Veterans, working parents or immigrants whose formative prior educational experience will have been in a different culture (and language)? Do academic advisers include faculty members or only administrative staff? Are there services for students with disabilities? Are there tutorial services, or writing centers? Can students access the library or library services at a schedule convenient to them, or through digital means? Whether online or campus-based, are the services accessible in the evenings or weekends?

6. Community

Is there evidence of an active student community among the adult learners? Are there student clubs for peer support and peer learning? Mentoring programs? Supportive and active alumni networks? Do the curricula themselves foster team collaboration and collaborative problem solving?

7. Costs and aid

Private institutions may have higher fees, but offsetting financial aid possibilities as well. Is financial assistance available, other than access to loans? Are there endowed or institutionally supported scholarship programs reserved for adult students? Are there merit-based awards for students who demonstrate sustained academic achievement?

8. Industry involvement

Are there industry advisory boards in place to assure the currency and self-correcting capacity of the programs to adjust to changes in their respective professional fields? Are there industry mentors or internship opportunities available as part of the degree experience?

9. Standards of academic excellence

What proportion of recent graduates successfully pursue advanced graduate or professional degree programs? (Even if the pool of applicants is likely to be smaller as a percentage of the whole than for younger graduates of full-time residential programs, the “success” rate among those who do apply may be an important indicator of academic rigor and quality.)

10. Amenities

The online or commuting adult student may not care about the amenities enjoyed (and paid for) by full-time students in residence. But if the program they choose exists within a campus environment that provides them, can the adult student access the gyms, the public lecture series, the discounts to events, the athletic games, the health services, and other benefits associated with “campus life”?


It is a widely shared view that the adult undergraduate learner is often more motivated than their 19-year-old counterpart, but the obstacles in their way to achieving their potential are often more complex—and consuming. In many of the undergraduate programs for adults with the highest rates of student achievement, the decisive factor is how deeply the faculty members are attuned to the issues their students face—and how much they partner in the success of their academic experience.

Students should be best able to determine how much the answers to the questions above matter to them with respect to their learning goals, support expectations and resources. But the answers must not lose sight of an intangible outlook that is arguably the most important. Whatever tools are at their disposal, no matter how sophisticated the technological environment or the structure of the curricula or the specialized services, or the frequency of communications, undergraduate programs for adults must be old-fashioned in one big thing: They prioritize student achievement as their fundamental mission. In that, they honor “traditional” academic values and standards for the modern age. Plus ça change …

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