Published on 2012/06/13

How Does Your Book Cover Look? Creating Successful First Impressions for Adult Students

It is important to ensure adult students understand the challenges they will be facing during their educational experience, but also that their institution has systems support them, in order to improve the chances at retaining that student until graduation. Photo by Dave Heuts.

A few simple truths we know in life: talking is never as effective as listening, a picture is worth a thousand words, and you cannot judge a book by its cover—yet we often do. We cannot always control a student’s first impression of our school, since it potentially developed years before they ever walk through the door. However, from the first phone call into admissions to their walk across the stage with a degree, we must identify how to develop our internal culture to encourage retention and success for both traditional and non-traditional students.

The question becomes: what aspects of our programs and services, outside of the classroom, build or degrade our students’ experiences? The simplest and most daunting answer is: all of them. But the easiest place to start? The beginning.

First contacts can make or break a decision to apply. So we must ask ourselves, how does our book cover read? Or in other words, when scanning through the plethora of college information, how does an adult learner assess us? Can our average adult student identify themselves within our website or marketing? Are our flexible options well-displayed for those employed full-time? What resources for adults with families are made clear?

Identifying the needs and desires of adult students will allow procedures to take form. Here are a few things to consider:

1.     Respect

It is important to be aware of our students’ work experiences. There is a fine line between being helpful and coming off as demeaning. Ensuring that your admissions and advising staff understand this balancing act will encourage non-traditional students to see your school as a good fit for them right from the start.

2.     Flexibility

Offering a flexible class schedule such as online, hybrid, or night and weekend classes has revolutionized the availability of education for adults who work or have families to support. But it is just as important to offer support services in other ways as well, including: online advising, student success phone meetings, and additional hours for financial aid and admissions.

3.     Support

Adult learners may not being seeking a campus-centered experience, but that does not mean that they shouldn’t feel like a central part of your campus. Creating opportunities for adults to take part in advising, student success programs, and campus life events is highly relevant to building engagement and ultimately retention.

Every encounter is another picture we paint. When we invite students into orientation, what impression are we making? Is this a supportive environment? Or a herding station pushing students through the system? One of the colleges I have worked for over the years arranged their orientation more like a state fair than a institute of higher education: door prizes were drawn, t-shirts were given away, everything was very high energy and exciting.

On the one hand, it is easy to see that they were hoping to build energy and engagement around these tactics, but the results instilled improper expectations about the daily experience of their school. The adults who enjoyed this orientation became frustrated when classes were challenging and day-to-day events were not exciting.

So we redesigned it with a new overarching theme: here is what to expect, your education will be challenging, but we are here to support you. Our expectations were made clear but so was our supportive culture.

The result? New students experienced a decrease in overall frustration, were more educated on their resources, and retention increased.

Sometimes, even with a great deal of forethought, we forget simply to ask our adult students what they need. Assessing cohort information, particularly when changing procedures, is a highly effective way of collecting internally valid information. Listen first, listen well, and you will quickly find easy ways to satisfy your non-traditional students.

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Readers Comments

WA Anderson 2012/06/13 at 8:27 am

The point you make about the orientation is interesting. We need to stop seeing adult student orientation as “frosh week”, “rush week”, call it what you will.

Adult students are generally more interested in learning the ins and outs of campus and getting a sense of how their year is going to go than they are in winning a prize and rooting for the team.

Daniela Thomas 2012/06/13 at 11:59 am

That’s really true, WA. I’ve seen some schools who don’t provide additional or separate orientation experiences for their adult students and roll them in with the traditional-aged 18-22 year olds.

What you wind up with is a large number of uninformed, and uncomfortable, soon-to-be dropout or transfer students.

I also really like the concept of ensuring that students recognize off the bat how their prior experience will be recognized. Would you suggest having this information available on the enrollment website, because typically PLA is very much case-by-case.

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