Published on 2014/03/06

AUDIO | Serving Adults is Beneficial both for Students and the Institution
As the non-traditional student population grows, institutions can benefit by successfully serving adult students today.

The following interview is with Eric Weldy, vice-president of student affairs and enrollment management at Northern Illinois University (NIU). NIU has recently seen a change in its student demographics, and has begun to increase its focus on enrollment, retention and success of non-traditional students. In this interview, Weldy expands on a few aspects involved with changing directions to serve the non-traditional student population and shares his thoughts on the value of focusing on retention and success for non-traditional students, both for the learners and for the institution itself.

1. Why is it important for institutions that largely serve traditional-age students to pay more attention to their non-traditional, adult learners?

There’s definitely been a change in demographics over the past several years, and universities, in order to be on the cutting edge, they really need to learn how to serve their student body, no matter who that student body is.

There needs to be a greater focus on how we meet the needs of the students and make them more successful. And, plus, just with the demographic shifts, there are fewer students in the pipeline … that go on to college, graduating from high school. And so there are many, many young and older adults who are making that decision of heading to school and … they have different needs.

2. What are some of the most common reasons why non-traditional students leave their studies before finishing a program?

It could be various reasons. Obviously financial [challenges] could be one major reason, and we’re finding that more and more with our student body. We have a larger number of students who are what I call “heavily need-based;” they need some form of financial aid in order to continue their education.

Other reasons [come] from the standpoint of family and work responsibilities. Institutions need to be very flexible in regards to when courses are offered and when the offices are open so that students can utilize the services provided to them. …

There are a lot of things that impact whether or not someone will actually finish.

3. What impact does leaving a program have on an adult learner’s likelihood of earning his or her degree?

I think it’s really similar to traditional students; when they stop out for various reasons, you’re not really quite sure whether or not that student will return and get their degree.

But what’s important is that we figure out a way to track those students from the standpoint of whether or not they’re finishing. [We also need to] make it easier for them to return in order to complete their degree. … We need to work a little bit more at making it easier for students who stop out to be able to get back in and to complete their degree.

4. What are a few strategies institutions can put into place to increase their retention of non-traditional students?

One is to create a welcoming environment for non-traditional students and think in terms of, “If I was a non-traditional student, what things would I need in order to be successful in the campus community.” Those are things that I think institutions really have to think about.

Getting feedback from non-traditional students as it relates to what they feel they need. That’s a mistake I think many universities make in that they assume what a student needs and really don’t spend time sitting down and getting the feedback from students. That’s something we are definitely doing here at NIU. … A lot of what we do, as it relates to creating greater success for non-traditional students, is collecting information from them as it relates to how to better serve them.

5. From the institutional perspective, what is the value of focusing on increasing adult student retention rates?

If you do something and you do it well, others will hear about it and will be more inclined to ‘buy’ what you’re offering. Institutions are really going to have to show they’re successful at not only graduating non-traditional students, but also that those students, once they receive their degree, are able to go on and obtain a position, a job, within six months of earning their degree.

There are certain benefits for institutions if they’re able to recruit and retain non-traditional students. I think it works both ways. Obviously it’s a win-win situation for the students, for the university, but also it’s a win-win situation for the community when the students are successful. Particularly as the students go back into the communities and they are able to get better jobs that put them in a position to provide for themselves and their families.

6. Is there anything you’d like to add about this move toward serving non-traditional students and how institutions that have traditionally served 18 to 22-year-olds need to change direction in order to serve this new student population?

If institutions are paying attention to what’s happening demographically, they’ll know the makeup of the student body population is changing. So we have to be a step or two ahead of what’s happening in order to be successful as a university, in order for our students to be successful.

[We need to be] proactive as it relates to non-traditional students; addressing their needs and doing whatever we can to make sure they are successful, both inside and outside the classroom.


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Key Takeaways

  • Institutions shouldn’t assume they know what’s best for non-traditional students. It is critical to gather feedback from these learners to determine how best to serve them.
  • Being highly flexible, both inside and outside the classroom, has significant impact on improving retention among non-traditional students.
  • By looking at student demographic data, it should be clear to institutions currently focused on serving 18 to 22-year-olds that they need to pay attention to the growing population of adult students.

Readers Comments

Ian Hollis 2014/03/06 at 1:37 pm

These are some really solid points about how to better serve adult students. Consultation — making sure we are aware of their needs — is key. I remember when we first started our adult program, we had some ideas of what adult students were looking for, but in some cases we were off. For example, we introduced flexibility into our assignment deadlines, thinking the students would appreciate handing in their work on a rolling basis (they had a set number of assignments they had to hand in by the end of the course, but got to choose when to submit them). It turned out that this disrupted many of our students, who preferred to have set deadlines given at the start of the course so they could plan their schedules and other responsibilities around them. Weldy is right when he says that we overlook adult student feedback to our own peril.

Vera Matthews 2014/03/06 at 3:45 pm

Great interview. We know that employee retraining comes with high costs, which is why we try to keep attrition low. We have to understand higher education in the same way. When students “stop out,” there is certainly a risk they will not return. However, an equally costly risk is that they will return much later, having outdated credits or little memory of the postsecondary experience, and will have to be “retrained” before continuing on their program track. This “retraining,” in the form of remedial classes or additional workshops and orientations, can be costly both for the student and for the institution that has to offer them. Thus, our objective should be to support adult students in whatever ways they need so they finish their credential the first time around.

Lisa C 2014/03/07 at 6:10 am

I appreciate the anecdote about flexibility in assignments. I, too, have an experience where my department thought we were serving adult students effectively but hadn’t bothered to actually confirm this was the case. We started offering night classes, thinking those would be taken up by adult students who had work during the day. What we found was that full-time day students were signing up because they liked breaking their course load up throughout the day. Some adult students, on the other hand, found it difficult to devote three evening hours a week to the course, especially if they had young children at home. After receiving this feedback, we were able to redesign several courses to a model that worked for both sets of students: primarily online instruction with one face-to-face seminar-style meeting per month.

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