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Shaping Higher Education to the Needs of Older Adults

Adult students are not currently well-served in colleges and universities, but they are becoming better understood. It is important for higher education institutions to begin designing programs and services that meet the needs of adult students in order to prepare for the industry’s new realities.

The following interview is with Mabel Edmonds, the Dean for Workforce and Economic Development at Clover Park Technical College. At the recent NCWE conference, Edmonds gave a presentation on the Plus-50 initiative. In this interview, Edmonds discusses some of the challenges faced by the emerging group of older adult learners, gives her opinion on whether they are well-served by today’s colleges and universities and shares a few strategies that higher education institutions can adopt to overcome the most common barriers to adult student success.

1. Are adult learners currently well-served at the majority of American colleges and universities?

Unfortunately, adult learners are not served as well as I think we could serve them. And that’s the reason for our paying attention to them through the Plus-50 initiative that the American Association of Community Colleges, the effort that they have put forth. So we hope that by raising awareness and by helping colleges to know what to look for and processes that they can use to put resources in place and support mechanisms there will be more of us meeting the needs of our adult learners.

2. What are the most common challenges adult learners face in higher education?

I think the greatest challenge is just being able to work through the system that we have in place, to understand what it means—in some cases to come back to college, in other cases if adult learners have not been to college—just understanding our processes and procedures and then be able to move forward on a career pathway that is of interest to them.

Some of those specific challenges might be accessing financial aid, scholarships that might be available to them. In other cases, it might be just sitting down and talking with a counselor or someone who can advise them regarding demand-occupations that are available to them. In other cases it might be just becoming familiar with what is going on in the classroom, understanding the styles of instructors and what their expectations are and so forth.

Some of the things that we just take for granted, are things that are barriers or worry for those who are in the adult learners category.

3. What are a few strategies institutions can use to overcome some of these issues?

I think first of all, institutions can make their faculty and staff more aware of the challenges that our adult learners are experiencing so that we can put mechanisms in place to address some of those issues. Here at Clover Park Technical College, we have those in our student services department who provide information who meet with our adult learners who help them find the resources—whether financial resources, or other kinds of support services—available to them. It may be that we need to have special classes. You find many adult learners who are not proficient or computer literate, for example, so it may be that we would have to set up computer classes. And that’s something that we’ve done here at our college.

In other situations, just working with our instructors to say that within your classroom, you might have 17 year-old… recent graduates. Plus, we have a high school here on campus. So you have some younger students in your class, but you might have someone who’s plus 50 or in their 60’s or 70’s, those individuals are coming back to school. They have very different learning styles and just operate differently than the younger students. If the instructors are made aware of just those kinds of issues, then they will put into place strategies that will be able to help and address the needs of all of the students.

Those are some strategies that can be used by any institution and I think that we’ve done quite a bit to, hopefully make our college campus a “plus-50-friendly site”, to help those who are coming back or who never had the opportunity to attend an institution such as ours.

4. Do you think any institution can serve adult students, or should adults seek out institutions that specialize in adult higher education?

Well, I think any institution can serve adult students because we’re no longer seeing just younger students come through our doors. We’re seeing a very diverse group in terms of age, so we have to be ready to accept all students and have higher ed be accessible to anyone who comes into our doors.

I just think that it’s incumbent upon all of us to be aware of some of the challenges and some of the special needs that this category of students may have and then try to put into place some support systems to address the needs of, really all of our students. And this happens to be a population that maybe we haven’t paid as much attention to as we could have.

5. Is there anything that you would like to add about different strategies institutions can use to make higher education a little more accessible for adult learners?

There are a lot of community-based organizations, state agencies and others within the community who are trying to address the varied needs of adult learners. And I know we’ve found within our state and in our county in particular that more and more attention is being paid to adult learners and so, if we can first of all, identify those various resources within our community we’ll all be able to work together to help our adult learners.

And it’s not enough just to seek out adult learners who are interested in coming back to school or starting their education from the very beginning, it’s also necessary for us to put strategies in place to help retain those students as well as help them graduate to complete what they’re doing.

It’s a matter of us all working together within our institutions as well as out in the community and that’s the approach that we’ve taken.

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