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Competing for Adult Learners

Wanting flexibility in programming is not the same as wanting an easy program. Adult learners require their higher education institutions to deliver learning at times and in ways that are convenient for them, so they can live their lives while continuing their higher education.

Traditional-age college students — those under age 24 — currently outnumber adult learners, but the gap is closing as more adults pursue education for career advancement or a new career. By 2020, the National Center for Education Statistics projects there will be 10.7 million adult learners and 13.1 million traditional-age learners enrolled in higher education programs.

Competing for adult learners requires different strategies than competing for traditional-age students, even though both groups share the goal of earning a degree and finding a good job.

These two student groups also share a desire for high-quality academic programs and student support services. And they want opportunities to connect with their institution. But while younger students tend to be interested in the total college experience—student clubs, sports, social and other activities—adults are more interested in completing their education to take advantage of career opportunities. They are paying for their education themselves, unlike some younger students whose parents are paying for some or all of their education. Adults often are working, raising families, and participating in their communities and have less time for other school activities.

To successfully recruit adult learners, it is important that institutions’ communications to prospective and current learners be crafted to meet these learners’ expectations and needs.

Factors to consider when competing for adult learners:

First, adults are looking for education programs that are flexible and convenient. That does not mean “easy” programs. Rather, it means programs need to be available when adults have time to focus on education. For some adults, taking courses on campus—nights or weekends—is the best option. Many other adults are choosing to learn online. If they need to care for a sick child or work longer hours, they want the ability to adjust their schoolwork to fit their changing schedule.

Second, adults require a range of student support services to help them be successful. A friendly approach, easy access and expanded hours of service are essential to link adult learners to support services, including admissions counseling, academic advising, library resources, tutoring, exam proctoring, financial aid, scholarships, transfer of credits, credit for prior learning, career services, and technical support. Adults want these services to be available at times that are convenient for them.

Third, there should be some sensitivity for adults who are taking courses with traditional-age students. This is an issue faculty members need to think about when structuring their courses for both student populations.

Fourth, adults want opportunities to connect with their institution, but on their terms, because their time is more limited than that of traditional-age learners. Opportunities to connect with institutions can involve social media, adult learner-focused student clubs, events designed to bring adult learners together (virtually or in person), and recognition programs for adult learner achievements.

Notwithstanding their differences, adult learners and traditional-age learners do share some traits. Both are demanding consumers and are not shy about telling their educational institution what they expect from it. They both enjoy mixing face-to-face classroom instruction with online learning and they enjoy blended learning, where courses combine both learning formats.Further, traditional-age learners who work while going to school, like adult learners, need education programs that are flexible and convenient.

As adult learners and traditional-age learners become more alike in the future, higher education institutions might be tempted to use the same recruiting strategy for both groups. But the best approach remains a recruiting strategy that is targeted to the specific expectations and needs of the particular learner group.

Sidebar | Penn State’s adult learners

During 2011–12, more than 11,300 adult learners were enrolled online through Penn State’s World Campus in more than 80 graduate, undergraduate and professional certificate programs, as well as in resident instruction undergraduate programs delivered through Continuing Education at University Park.

Penn State defines adult learners as 24 years of age or older; or a veteran of the armed services; or active duty service member; or returning to school after four or more years of employment, homemaking or other activity; or individuals who assume multiple adult roles, such as parent, spouse/partner, employee, and student.

Here are some demographics about this growing student population at Penn State:

World Campus undergraduate students

Number of adults, percent of all students*: 5,219, 85 percent

Average age: 33

Gender: 52 percent female, 48 percent male

World Campus graduate students

Number of adults, percent of all students*: 5,065, 98 percent

Average age: 34

Gender: 48 percent female, 52 percent male

Continuing Education at University Park (CEUP) undergraduate students

Number of adults, percent of all students*: 1,045, 11 percent

Average age: 37

Gender: 49 percent female, 51 percent male

* For World Campus; percent of all students with World Campus as their home campus. For CEUP, percent of all students taking a CEUP course.

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