Published on 2012/06/22

JUNE PANEL | Side-Stepping the Most Common Roadblocks to Successful Adult Higher Education

Adult students have a number of demands on their time from their families and their jobs. Ensuring that the institution is understanding and reactive to these demands will increase the likelihood of adult students completing their degrees. Image by Alan Cleaver

Adults are adults. They learn like adults when taught by adults with their adult needs identified, met, and utilized. Some institutions do a wonderful job of meeting the needs of the adult learner but most do not. However, as more adults venture back to the classroom, there is a growing awareness of the differing needs of the adult learner and the urgency with which they must be addressed and met.

All students need a team. All learners need a coach, an advisor, a captain to guide them through the often tricky obstacles that stand between them and their goal of educational obtainment. While institutions readily provide this for the K-12 set, rarely do they include the diversified, yet highly specific, learning needs of the adult student in their support matrixes. As a Higher Education specialist, here are the most important elements that I have identified via my research and experience.

Student support

Issue: Adults have very busy lives and thus have very specific needs when it comes to student support. These needs include office hours that extend beyond the traditional 8 a.m.-to-5 p.m. workday clock and include weekend hours. Many institutions find themselves unable to meet the time constraints of their adult learners due to budgetary issues and thus the adult learner must juggle their enrollment, advising, financial aid, and other needs during their own work day. This, obviously, prevents many students from accessing the services they need in a manner that expedites their progress.

Solution: Faced with the economic reality of institutional budgets and staffing, the best solution to this infrastructure mismatch is to make all necessary documents needed for the adult student available online with no need to physically meet with, speak with, or personally interact with a staff member for their submission.

This would immediately free the adult learner from the negative consequences and impact of scheduling their days off of work to meet with support staff during business hours and provide an easier path towards degree matriculation.

Technology infrastructure

Issue: Adult students utilize online and distance education delivery formats in greater numbers than traditional students. They make up a gross percentage of the numbers in the asynchronous classroom yet the technology that is often required to participate in these classrooms is either prohibitively costly for an adult’s working budget or is beyond the technological abilities of the typical adult student’s comfort zone.

The current rate of software development is approximately 18 months. This means that the average 4 year degree will require a software turn-over and upgrade 2.5-3 times during the course of the student’s program. This is an obvious obstacle to the adult student’s budget yet many institutions seem oblivious to this component.

Solution: A simple solution involves the utilization of open source programming and keeping the technology requirements at their least common denominators for classes not involving specialized programs. This would immediately eliminate the need for the continual upgrade as determined by the companies that are currently dictating the educational market and allow more students to complete their educations in a cost effective, and timely, manner.

The secondary benefit of this solution solves also solves the corresponding issue of technological abilities of the adult learner. By not requiring continual updates, the student is free to master a program and focus on learning rather than on the constant disruption of the technology itself. The noise in the machine becomes silent and learning ensues.

Relatability of advisors

Issue: Adult learners usually have adult lives that include full-time jobs, children, aging parents, spouses/partners, and many layers of energy-siphoning responsibilities that demand the time and attention of the student. These responsibilities can usually be managed with a group and family commitment to the student’s learning mission. However, the student advisors at many institutions are often not similarly life-situated due to age and are therefore unable to relate, in tangible ways, to the obligations of the adult learner.

Solution: An obvious solution to this issue is to hire only adults who are similarly situated, however that is not only illegal but brings to mind the whole argument of training and multi-generational mutual growth.

The true solution is for institutions to develop a training program that identifies benchmark life parameters of adult students and presents a matrix of workable options when dealing with their unique, but collectively viable, life circumstances. This would provide an opportunity of growth for both the advisors and a reverse mentoring dynamic for the adult learners as they learn to work both through, and within, the current system.

Real-world experience, relevance, and outcomes

Issue: Adult learners do not generally go into higher education endeavors without a wealth of life and professional experience. They bring to the classroom perspective brought by success and failures they have experienced over the years. When an instructor does not elect to harness and incorporate these viewpoints into the classroom environment, a wealth of opportunity is missed and both the original adult student and their classmates lose out on a tremendous pool of knowledge. This results in the adult student feeling irrelevant, and often isolated, from the learning process which is further reinforced by the feelings of being aged out of the classroom experience and negatively impacts the adult learner’s self-efficacious beliefs in their own success and viability.

Solution: While some institutions are very vocal about being inclusive to—and with—the adult learner, many do not actively incorporate these learners in the classroom environment. With current trend of adults in the classroom, this is a foolish mistake. A solid approach (and one I practice in every encounter) is to inquire of every student (with serious listening ears on), “How did you get here? Where did you come from?”

I believe in any educational environment (face-to-face or online) the answers to those two simple questions will set the tone for the rest of the semester.

Seek, recognize, acknowledge, and respect the differences of the adult learner in the higher education classroom and the adult learner will bring a wide wealth of knowledge, wisdom, perspective, and energy to their classmates. However, place to obstacles in their path and the institution misses out on significant opportunities for shared learning and growth that no amount of budgetary filling can replace or replicate. The choice is yours. Decide what you want for your adult learners in your higher education educational program.

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Readers Comments

Reg White 2012/06/22 at 9:36 am

I really like the direction you’ve gone here and appreciate you pointing out, and providing solutions to, common pains.

I think my only gripe is with the cost (both direct and in terms of time) associated with undertaking these projects.

It makes sense when we’re talking about syllibi and standard hand-out material. It becomes more difficult when we’re talking about coursebooks, enrollment and financial services forms, and other items that require some level of institutional support in order to be understood and completed efficiently.

Also, I don’t think students should be able to choose their courses without at least consulting with an academic advisor. Perhaps academic advisors could make better use of technologies like Skype, though, to make their services more mobile and accessible.

Paul Maurice 2012/06/23 at 8:04 pm

It’s interesting when you point out how adult students really enrich the classroom experience for everyone around them and I wonder… are they getting the same out as they put in? At the end of the day, many will be in classes with 18-22 year olds who see their college classes as irritating distractions to their social plans.

I guess the question I have… which may be a little extreme… is whether adult students should have their own institutions. They would benefit from one another’s experience, understand everyone’s constraints and all value their learning experience equally. Would it not make sense to have institutions solely directed toward adult student needs?

What do you think, Heidi?

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