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Improving Public and Not-for-Profit Higher Education for Adult Students

For-profit institutions may have bigger budgets, but there are some key elements that public and not-for-profit institutions could introduce to better serve adult students. Photo by Auris.

Only a small share of students in higher education are traditional; age 18-22, studying full-time, living on campus, financially dependent, working part-time, going to college directly from high school.

Yet, a cursory glance at our websites and marketing materials might obscure the fact that the bulk of students today are in some form of non-traditional learning, and that roughly one-third of the students in higher education are decidedly non-traditional: adult students, working full-time, financially independent, often studying part-time. It is clear that the for-profit sector has recognized this shift. Their massive investment in marketing has brought them hundreds of thousands of new students and a whole boatload of new problems (as described by Senator Harkin in his recent scathing report on for-profits).

Rather than emulate a sector that spends more on profit distribution and marketing than on instruction, how do we get public and non-profit institutions to respond to this shift and effectively serve adult students? I’ll share a few insights from my colleagues who lead strong adult programs on the hallmarks of programs that enable adult students to succeed.

A commitment from the top

Successful adult education programs exist on campuses in which the top leadership recognizes the importance of adult students and takes pride in serving them. Do adult students feel welcome? This perception, welcoming or not, is largely determined by a tone set right from the top.

A budget commitment to marketing aimed at adult students

The for-profit sector has been spending 25 percent of revenue on marketing and admissions. While this level of expenditure is unnecessary for established public and not-for-profit universities, a more vigorous marketing and admission expenditure is required. It is important for public and not-for-profit institutions to shed the perception that they are geared entirely toward residential, four-year students.

Flexible and convenient delivery (accelerated, evening, weekend, online)

The increased availability of flexible and convenient program delivery must be coupled with recognition that these models deliver equal or superior outcomes with adult students. With this comes developing more distributed course and service locations, and bringing education to the students. Moreover, institutions must offer an array of professional majors and programs that address the career focus of adult students, as well as a vigorous liberal arts general education program. Enabling adult students to fit their chosen degree into the rest of their lives is largely a question of increasing access and reducing barriers.

Programming well suited for adult learners

Institutions should focus on developing programs that are convenient and targeted toward adult students. Moreover, they must be careful to avoid curriculum traps—such as required internships or extended use of lab-intensive courses—that would tend to derail many working adult students.

Modernized admission regulations

Admission processes must recognize that career success is more important than a high school record, provide, second chances for those who were not successful in their first attempt, as well as support mechanisms for those who need help getting up to speed. Further, creating prior learning assessment policies that encourage adult students to use these processes early in the degree will help create a supportive environment for adults that will encourage persistence and completion.

Tuition strategies aimed at adult students

Finally, from a student finances perspective, public and not-for-profit colleges and universities must establish a market-oriented tuition strategy. Most adult programs do not provide unfunded tuition discounts; tuition needs to be stated in clear terms and be kept as low as possible. High state tuition is definitely a barrier. Adult students are less likely to apply for financial aid, less likely to qualify for grants, and are more resistant to loans. Institutions must develop billing and financial aid processes that are adapted to those who are working. Adult students care about quality, convenience, flexibility, and affordability.

Making public and not-for-profit higher education a reality for more adult students should be a priority for colleges and universities. We must work to remove academic, geographic, and financial barriers that are keeping prospective students away and pushing them toward the marketing-rich for-profit institutions. We must help more students to fulfill the nation’s college completion agenda.

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