Published on 2012/11/29

Making Higher Education Work for Those Out of Work

Numerous industries are in periods of great flux and change, resulting in a large number of people out of work and even larger number searching for a new career. This new reality in the labor market requires higher education institutions to shape their programming to meet the specific needs of students who are out of work or looking to find a new job.

Entering “non-traditional student” into Yahoo yields 211,000,000 hits, which gives you a general idea as to how much has been written about adult learners in the field of higher education. As little as twenty years ago, the “non-traditional” student was a rare sight in the classroom. In today’s world, though, adult learners are rapidly becoming the norm as colleges and universities target them for new student prospecting.

As opposed to the so-called “traditional” students, non-traditional students views their student role as just one of several roles that are competing for their time and energy. When dealing with adult learners who work full-time, the student role takes a backseat to the role of employee, spouse, and parent.

Just prior to the college search process, many adult learners working full-time come to the realization that their existing career path is stagnant, or worse…obsolete. Those that see the writing on the wall then seek out college as an opportunity to make a career change which will either result in better pay and benefits, a higher standard of living, more personal fulfillment, or all of the above.

In considering how to market to, recruit, and retain adults who are seeking a career change, we need to recognize that they have significant barriers to overcome. We have no control over some of these barriers – in those cases, all we can do is offer a sympathetic ear, possible options, and encourage the prospective student to resolve their issues and seek postsecondary education in the future.

The prospect in this scenario may be excited and motivated by a career change, but the reality is that the following situations negatively impact progress toward his/her goal: lack of time and/or scheduling problems, juggling competing role demands, day-to-day situational factors such as transportation difficulties, personal and family issues, et cetera.

They may have had negative past experiences with schooling that have altered their perception of higher education now, or may lack adequate academic preparation, which causes them to feel out of place in the classroom.

There are many institutional obstacles that have to be navigated as well – confusion about degree requirements and satisfactory progress standards, stress about the financial cost of education, and frustration with a compartmentalized bureaucracy that seems to permeate many postsecondary institutions.

Admissions personnel must keep in mind that initial learning goals may bring a potential student to our doorstep (or our exhibit table), but something else must occur to motivate continuing enrollment.

What hooks the potential student wanting to change careers?  Speak to the real-life personal and professional advancement opportunities afforded by completion of a degree at your institution, a degree that ideally will offer job security, promotion, and the chance to stay abreast of competitors.

Ensure that social integration takes place within the classroom by encouraging in-class networking through formal and informal means. Adult learners, especially those who are used to a full-time work environment, yearn for the ability to share their competence and experience with others. They want to be recognized as a knowledgeable resource as well as a student, and strongly desire respect from their partners in learning.

Adult learners on a specific career path clamor for practical learning. They expect to be taught not only theoretical principles, but applications that are immediately pragmatic and apply directly to their daily personal and professional lives. Subject matter must be challenging and engaging, but also clearly relevant and meaningful. They must be able to see the end goal clearly, as well as each step it will take to get there.

In short, when attracting potential career-changers to our institutions, we must be intentional in regarding what we offer in terms of direct benefits to them so that we can differentiate our degree programs from the many others available. You must know your competitors and what niche each one serves so that you can more clearly identify—and fill—the gaps in your region. At that point, you can then design your message to target the exact audience that will be attracted to the educational opportunities at your institution—and the audience that will be successful in pursuing their ultimate goal of degree-completion.

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Readers Comments

Vera Matthews 2012/11/29 at 10:18 am

Feeling knowledgeable in the classroom, and that their previous experience is valuable, is definitely a priority for many adult learners and I agree with Ms. Miller that it is a key one that colleges and universities can be aware of and address. One great thing to mention here would be a recognition of prior learning program; these are gaining popularity in the US and I think they are a very useful way to attract adult learners, not only lending respect and value to their work and life experience, but also perhaps streamlining the amount of time and money they will need to commit to complete their course or degree (two other top concerns for adult students!).

Eileen Peters 2012/11/29 at 6:45 pm

It is a lot more manageable to cater to adult students in a program or environment where they are only in courses with other adult students. But this is not always the case; some adult students end up in courses or programs with traditional-age students, and I think it is important to address the concerns of these adult students. They are the ones, in my opinion, that might end up feeling the most out of place. Back to “being recognized as a knowledgeable resource,” which Ms. Miller rightly emphasizes as an important priority, I have heard recently of some innovative ways to put this into practice in a mixed– traditional, non-traditional– classroom.

An adult student could be made to feel knowledgable, valuable, feel ownership over the course if some kind of mentor-mentee relationship were encouraged between an adult student whose experience and skills made them a strong student, and a traditional-age student who was struggling, either with writing, or with course concepts…what have you. This kind of relationship could not only be very valuable for the class dynamic, it would allow the adult student to find a niche where they felt both useful and knowledgeable in a classroom with traditional-age students (often an off-putting environment for adults).

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