Published on 2013/05/23

Three Hurdles Facing College-Bound Adult Students

Co-written with Elena Gardea | Adult Education Transitions Coordinator, Elgin Community College

Three Hurdles Facing College-Bound Adult Education Students
Institutions can implement strategies and programs to help ease the transition for adult education students into postsecondary-level instruction.

Across the country, educators are facing the challenge of improving the transition rate of adult education students into postsecondary-level instruction. Before we can make significant progress on this issue, we need to understand the unique barriers impacting their ability to successfully complete adult basic education, adult secondary education or English as a second language programs and advance to postsecondary-level instruction. Here are three of the most common hurdles encountered by adult education students attempting to transition to postsecondary education at Elgin Community College (ECC), along with some recommended solutions.

1. Lack of Awareness

Students are unaware of career pathway options and lack information regarding available educational opportunities. Even after identifying a career pathway, questions remain regarding program requirements, course prerequisites, placement testing and funding their education. Adult students are unfamiliar with navigating the college system, including the admissions process, applying for scholarships and financial assistance and obtaining an evaluation of foreign credentials. Students become discouraged when they are bounced from department to department and receive incomplete, conflicting or confusing information, and many simply never complete the process.

Solution: A single point of contact, such as a Transitions Coordinator or Career Navigator, is recommended to provide one-on-one assistance to adult education students interested in making the transition to postsecondary education. Broad and extensive experience in student services is critical, as this individual serves as the glue binding all of the services and processes together. For example, a student may need to be sent to the financial aid office, but they will have been told who to ask for upon arrival and will have been coached on specific questions to ask, arriving with various financial aid forms completed in advance. Students are made explicitly aware of where they are heading and what they might expect as they learn to navigate the system.

2. Financial Resources and Life Barriers

Many adult students are unfamiliar with financial aid and scholarship application processes. If students will be funding their own education, they are often unfamiliar with policies that apply to them. As a result, students may successfully enroll, only to find they have been dropped due to non-payment upon missing a particular deadline.   Or, a student dropping from full- to part-time status in a second semester may not have considered the impact it will have on the amount of financial aid they will receive. Life barriers such as childcare or job changes are a frequent concern, causing many students to drop out mid-way through their education.

Solution: Including a financial literacy component within adult education classes can be beneficial, in addition to supplementary workshops. It is helpful to have an individual from the financial aid office available to assist students with explaining costs and how financial aid and scholarships work, along with designing personal budgets. Revising student orientations to include information on barriers to participation and helping incoming students to create a financial plan can also mitigate conflicts later on.

3. Academic Preparedness

Adult education students often express an interest in enrolling in college-level classes but may require further support to succeed in that environment. Often, they are unable to achieve the placement scores necessary for their desired program of study and end up in developmental education courses. The completion rate for developmental education courses remains low, and students may become discouraged as they realize it will take longer than anticipated to reach their goal. They may also deplete their financial aid resources, intended for postsecondary education, on pre-college level courses.

Solution: Bridge programs that introduce students to various career pathways and provide contextualized academic instruction can prepare students for entry into postsecondary-level programs.   Additionally, integrated instructional programs such as ECC’s Accelerating Opportunity are making it possible for adult education students to enroll immediately in various career technical education programs while receiving academic assistance and enhanced supportive services, leading to short-term, industry-recognized credentials. Learning communities, such as paired English 101 and Advanced ESL classes, allow students to get a taste of success in college-level coursework, setting the stage for future success.

Educators can ease the transition to postsecondary education for adult education students by providing additional supports as they move towards their destination. With the right tools, adult education students will bridge the gap and move seamlessly into college-level coursework.

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Readers Comments

Rebecca Cruser 2013/05/23 at 11:29 am

The need for well-informed, helpful student advisors cannot be overstated. Heinrich and Gardea are correct in saying that complicated admissions processes can act as a major deterrent for adult education students. Having trained staff who can provide plain-language information not only helps the students themselves, but also staff in other departments who interact with these students.

Jason Bennett 2013/05/24 at 10:51 am

One thing I find interesting about a program such as your Accelerating Opportunities option is that students have the ability to continue their studies after receiving the AO credential. I was wondering if the authors could speak a bit more to this.

Do many of your AO students express the desire to continue their education? If so, what exactly does support from ECC to pursue this path entail (e.g. learning assessments, transition supports, etc.)?

Peggy Heinrich 2013/05/30 at 9:30 am


Thanks for your comment. At ECC, a number of our students do continue on for that next credential, although this comprises a smaller number of the AO students. In some areas, it is high – for example, 100% of our dental office aide students from this spring graduated with a Basic Vocational Certificate in Dental Office Aide, and all but one are continuing on in the fall for the next certificate, without AO instructional support. That one student will leave ECC to pursue a hygienist degree at another community college (as we do not offer it). In CNC, three of our original graduates have continued on and just completed their second semester of computer integrated manufacturing. In welding, most of the students go out and obtain employment upon completion of the original certificate – so it varies, depending on the pathway area.

In CNC or Welding, we continue to provide intensive advising support to former AO students who continue on, through a TAACCCT grant, which we have used to help scale up our AO initiative. Tutoring is available for those students, as well, funded by the same source. In Dental and HVACR, the advisor continues to be available to the students for job placement support. Overall, though, our hope is that students have transitioned to a point of greater self-sufficiency and have developed many of the tools to help them succeed as they pursue that next credential.

I hope this is helpful, and feel free to contact me any time at if you have additional questions.

Thank you,

Peggy Heinrich

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