Published on 2013/12/02

AUDIO | Increasing Retention of At-Risk Adult Students
Increasing retention of at-risk adult students cannot be achieved with one-size-fits-all programs; instead, institutions must address their specific needs and challenges.
The following interview is with Steven VandenAvond, associate provost for outreach and adult access at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. VandenAvond recently gave a presentation at the UPCEA Central Conference on strategies higher education institutions can put into place to better support at-risk, non-traditional students. In this interview, VandenAvond expands on that topic, shares his thoughts on whether colleges and universities are currently succeeding in serving these unique learners and discusses some of the major pitfalls these students must navigate.

Click here to read key takeaways

1. What are the most significant challenges that at-risk, non-traditional students face when they enroll in higher education?

The issues they face aren’t too much different than non-traditional students who wouldn’t be considered at-risk. And, by “at-risk,” we mean adult students who have some university college credit and for some reason had to drop out and discontinue their education.

They tend to cluster around three or four main [challenges].

One is they simply have an apprehension about their abilities to succeed in a university environment. They weren’t successful the first or second time around, and so they naturally have some apprehension about their ability to succeed coming back to the university.

The second area seems to be time and geographical limitation. Even if they’re convinced they have the ability to succeed, overcome their obstacles and get up to speed in terms of their abilities — and you have to remember that some of these folks haven’t been to a college or any structured educational setting for 25 years — they often have employment, family and other time commitments that sort of limit the amount of time they can spend pursuing their degrees. [Also], many of them aren’t geographically located in an area where they have easy access to a face-to-face setting, which leads to a third area, and that’s apprehension about the format of education.

Many adult students are, whether they like it or not, … being forced by their busy lives to complete their education online. And very few of them have a lot of experience in that sort of format.

And then the fourth obstacle at-risk adult students have in returning to university is confusion about paths forward. For many years in higher education, when we were dealing mainly with 18 to 22-year-old kids, they would come into university and it was pretty charted out what they would do and their advisor would make them suggestions. Now, educational programs are very heterogeneous; there are a lot of choices for students. They have a lot of hybrid programs. You have programs in disciplines that didn’t exist even two or three years ago. Navigating through the myriad choices you have, not only [in] academic programming, but things like financial aid and getting electronic books now rather than having a face-to-face book store — it can be dizzying for adult students, especially for at-risk returning adult students. Confusion about a clear path forward from where they are when they come back to the university — and [that] could be anywhere from three credits to 103 credits — to where they want to get is often an obstacle for them.

2. Are most institutions set up to help at-risk students overcome these hurdles?

I don’t think they are. Colleges and universities are slowly making the transition to the adult student population. It wasn’t until maybe 10 years ago that a lot of folks in higher education understood that the traditional student population was going to be declining … and that the adult student population was going to be increasing in terms of people who needed to get a college degree either to get a job or to get promoted into a position they desire. Many of them have been slowly making the transition and it’s been kind of clumsy for many colleges and universities, and many have taken the approach of trying to incorporate adult student services into their traditional operations. It’s very much like fitting a square peg into a round hole; it doesn’t really work very well.

Other institutions have developed completely different, separate sets of structures and processes tailored specifically for adult students because they could not be more different than traditional students, not only in terms of what they need [in] number of credits … but even in terms of their learning styles. They have 25 years of job experience, sometimes, underneath their belts and the way they learn is much different than a brand new high school graduate.

It’s been a little bit clumsy, and some institutions have taken a more proactive approach and have established completely separate gateways to the university for adult students, but those tend to be few and far between.

3. What are some strategies institutions can put into place to help these learners overcome the challenges they face?

It’s sort of an all-or-nothing proposition. If you want to serve adult students you really have to make [a] concerted effort and spend time and resources on serving adult students; it can’t be an add-on. The way we’ve done that here at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay is we have an entire division set up to serve the needs of returning adult students, which means we have dedicated advisors who have master’s degrees in adult education or similar disciplines who understand the unique needs of adults. We have a very low student-to-advisor ratio so students get individual attention. … We have a separate admissions process and admissions form for the university if you’re an adult. Asking an adult to take an ACT (American College Testing) test is simply not a good idea. So, we have different admissions processes and standards for our returning adult students. And then we provide things like alumni mentors to our adult students. These mentors are above and beyond the tutoring services available to adult students in that they’re alumni of our program who serve as moral support for adult students or for a source of information that our academic advisors aren’t in the best position to answer. …

And, then, many universities serving adult students are adopting predictive instruments. There are a number of nationally standardized predictive instruments or readiness instruments that give adult students a sense of if they’re ready for college-level learning both in terms of their content knowledge — math, science, writing — but also in terms of their motivation and how busy the rest of their lives are and, most recently, their readiness for online learning. … These instruments will provide students with feedback on areas where they might need to beef up before they begin or areas where they are quite prepared to come to school. Often times, it’s a confidence boost for students to support the idea that they really are ready to come back and finish their education for good this time.

And, then, like any other institution of higher education, you want to provide early alert or retention support for students, and it’s even more important for adult students. Many of the programs for adult students will matriculate our accelerated and online and with their lives getting busy, if they don’t keep up, they can find themselves in a position where they are just not able to complete courses. So, we have an early alert system tied into our online course management system that monitors certain behaviors on the part of students. If they don’t log in for a period of time, something is automatically triggered so we make contact with that student to make sure they don’t fall too far behind.

And, a final option or element universities are adding is providing students with alternative ways of learning, whether it be some remedial experience to get up to speed or for engaging and learning and then coming to the university to get credit for prior learning experiences.

4. Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of creating strategies to help serve at-risk students and the value institutions can gain in terms of retaining at-risk adult students and moving them through to completion?

I think it’s important to realize that, especially the way we define at-risk adult students — and it’s any student who has some college credit who is coming back to school after having dropped out. That definition itself might have to be reevaluated because it’s becoming par for the course for students to take a course here or a course there or maybe a free Massive Open Online Course somewhere else and try to transfer that into a credit-bearing course. And, so, that might not necessarily mean an adult student is at risk because they’re coming to your university with previous credit under their belt. That might have been their intention the whole time.

Another important aspect to realize is that the way we’re defining at-risk adult students, again, the strategies are very similar to serving adult students — they’re just exacerbated. The returning adult students who are at risk just simply need more of the kinds of recruitment and retention and support initiatives we have been providing for adult students.

And then, third, not only giving more of it; they need to be tailored [so] that we can’t stay with the model, especially with adult students where one size fits all. … We at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay wanted to tailor our services so much to our individual students that we actually developed our own in-house predictive instrument because we think students who are considering the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay might be different in some way, shape or form than students who might provide data for a nationally standardized predictive instrument. So, you have to be ready to tailor your services not only to the adult population, but the individual kind of adults that might be attracted to your university. But the payoff is limitless, not only in terms of a university’s ability to engage with and attract engaged students, but in terms of the economic development of the country, where people are going to need to continually educate themselves and partake in lifelong learning in order to do their jobs and to prepare themselves for the jobs of the future. That’s only going to help the nation move forward.

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Key Takeaways

  • The definition of an at-risk adult student — that is, one with previous college experience but no degree — is becoming less relevant with the popularity of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and Prior Learning Assessment, which adults may intentionally pursue prior to enrollment at a traditional institution.
  • The vast array of program choices and self-confidence issues are some of the biggest challenges at-risk adults must overcome.
  • In order to serve these students, institutions must design support services specifically geared to their unique needs.
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Readers Comments

Chelsea Bellows 2013/12/02 at 11:50 am

Institutions would do well to take a page from their continuing education units, which traditionally deal mainly with adult students and, thus, tend to have a better grasp of their needs. The interviewee mentions alumni mentoring, which I believe many CE programs use. It’s certainly a useful way to keep alumni connected to the institution (particularly important as higher education tries to foster a culture of lifelong learning) and offer current students a professional link to their chosen field.

There are other innovative supports that CE units offer their students that the main institution could learn from.

Natasha Rubin 2013/12/02 at 1:28 pm

VandenAvond is right to say most institutions aren’t ready to deal with the influx of adult students. The mere fact that we still refer to adults as “non-traditional” students — when they are, in reality, the new “traditional” (and majority) students — underlines the inadequacy of most institutions to serve this population. Institutions need to start planning with adult students and their specific needs in mind. A cultural shift is most definitely needed.

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