Visit Modern Campus

Conversation Key to Determining Adult Student Needs

Sometimes administrators need to simply talk to their students to know what they need. Adult students wind up on the losing end when decisions about non-traditional programming are based on metrics from traditional-aged students and anonymous metric-gathering. Photo by 77Orchids.

Last month I shared a few reasons why it is fiscally wise for higher education institutions to attend to and retain adult student populations. I mentioned the importance of having personnel who understand life stage issues and can lend support, as well as why valuing adult students can help retain them.

I mentioned that there is a robust population of adult students at the university where I now serve; over the past half-decade there has been a steady flow of adults through our undergraduate, degree completion, and graduate programs, which should not be surprising since statistics (from 2006 and earlier) have suggested that at least a third of all undergraduate students alone are over the age of 25.

The research that includes such statistics usually focuses on the processes colleges and universities can develop to attract and keep adult students; the policy changes public institutions should consider to make higher education more equitable for adult students; and the programs that should be created to help adult students adjust to ever-changing higher education experiences. Such statistics help colleges and universities advocate for adult student populations in order to allocate and create appropriate learning spaces; however, statistics do not provide insight as to the methods that can be employed by higher education leaders to determine the needs of adult students on their campuses.

Here is the key to determining those needs:

Ask adult students what they need to succeed.

Higher education professionals participate with one another to create research studies related to adult students, spend time during team meetings talking about adult student needs, and attend conferences about adult learning. We rely on scholarship to tell us how to interact with the populations on our campuses and often do not spend enough time talking to our constituents. I was honored to meet with students, administrators, staff, and faculty members on my campus to discuss support services for our adult and graduate students and while the responses from these groups intersected in many places, the observations and reactions from the students themselves was a most important tool in guiding the next steps our leaders took to meet the varied needs of these populations.

There are many different instruments available to survey your adult student population but one of the best is good old-fashioned leg-work. If you are invested in your adult students, create an opportunity for qualitative research; you probably have a willing and available administrator, faculty member, or other scholar-practitioner associated with your institution to do some interviewing, focus groups, and coding who could work with your students, ask the questions, and develop lists of what your campus is doing well and what are areas of challenge.

It is important for your institution to recognize that there are issues affecting adult students that may not be issues yet for your “traditional age” students; making assumptions about the needs of adult students could negatively impact the same bottom lines (accreditation reporting, word-of-mouth recruiting, and state and federal aid) that I identified previously. Having evidence of the self-identified (read: customized) needs of adult students on your campus, rather than relying solely on aggregated research findings, will lead you to the development of a campus-appropriate plan for successful adult student support systems.

– – – –


Markowitz, M. & Russel, A. (2006). Policy matters: Addressing the needs of adult learners. Retrieved from

Milheim, K.L. (2005). Identifying and addressing the needs of adult students in higher education. Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 45(1),  119-128.

“Identify the needs of adult learners.” College Board, The College Completion Agenda. Retrieved from

Author Perspective: