Published on 2014/10/28

Navigating the Bureaucracy of Higher Education: How Processes Impair Persistence for Adults

Navigating the Bureaucracy of Higher Education: How Processes Impair Persistence for Adults
The bureaucratic processes designed to protect traditional-age students can easily create a series of roadblocks for adult learners that hampers their persistence.
Bureaucracy: “A system that has many complicated rules and ways of doing things (Merriam-Webster); A system of administration distinguished by written and inflexible rules, regulations and procedures (Business”

Colleges and universities work hard to provide a supportive academic community that fosters student success, but they often miss their mark when it comes to serving adult learners. The bureaucratic nature of our institutions—with its policies and procedures wrapped in a one-size-fits-all model—can often be a hindrance for adult learners.

In the lead article of this month’s Special Feature on Operational Efficiency in Higher Ed, Cathy Sandeen (Vice President for Education and Innovation at ACE), reminded us of the big picture. “The most important thing for us is to focus on what we’re trying to achieve. Our outcomes are to help students learn, achieve, and complete degrees and credentials.” [1]

No matter how bureaucratic our institutions may be, we want our students to achieve academic success and meet their educational and career goals. But navigating the bureaucracy of our institutions might lead adult learners to think otherwise.

The bureaucratic roadblocks often begin with admissions. Returning adult students frequently have prior college coursework for which they seek transfer credit. Even though they may have taken courses at a nationally accredited institution and earned high grades, the transferability of courses is often up to each institution. Sometimes this decision is at the whim of a department chair who perceives the course taken at another institution as inferior to the same course taught at their own college. Consider the following scenario and the message that it sends:

Tom, 32 years old, is married with a wife and two children. In his 20s, Tom had completed 90 credits at two- and four-year colleges; he now wants to complete his business degree and plans to attend a different college where he now lives. Tom thinks he will be in his senior year and will need about 30 more credits to complete his bachelor’s degree. But the university will only accept the online courses he’s taken as free electives and won’t accept two upper-division business courses because it wants him to take these courses at its own institution. Since Tom already has most of his electives, he is now looking at 45 credits to complete his degree. He asks the admissions counselor if he can appeal this decision, but is told there is no appeals process.

Higher education is supposed to foster critical thinking, yet the inflexible nature of some of our policies is at odds with this objective. If our ultimate goal is for degree completion, shouldn’t our transfer policies be more open-minded and inclusive? Inside Higher Education recently published the results of a survey showing that adults returning to college had only a 37.3-percent completion rate.[2] While this study did not look at reasons for the low percentage, it’s possible that the acceptance of transfer courses was a factor. It would be interesting to see whether institutions with more flexible transfer policies have higher completion rates for adult students.

Alhasson writes that meeting the needs of adult students requires “systematic assessment of expectations and satisfaction with academic and institutional services.”[3] When students question a policy, a typical response is “Well, that’s always been the policy.” I was recently told that one institution requires all returning students to first enroll in their original major, no matter how long they have been away. Then they must meet with the department chair of this major before changing. Why does a 35-year-old student need to speak with the department chair before changing their major when reentering college? We need to evaluate the impact our policies and procedures have on adult students.

While I do believe that our institutions mean well, we must change the one-size-fits-all mentality. Consider the following:

  • The one-stop shop with registration, financial aid, academic advising, student accounts and career services in the same building has been shown to increase access. But if none of these services are available at least one evening each week, then the institution is serving its own staff’s needs and not those of its adult students, who often work during operating hours.

  • Requiring students to meet with their academic advisor each semester and have their advisor sign off on courses before they register is one way to ensure students are taking the correct courses. But this is typically easier for the full-time student who is regularly on campus. For the adult student who is working full-time, alternative methods such as phone or email contact should be considered.

  • Many colleges require signatures. Signatures for dropping a course, withdrawing from a course, changing majors, etc. Again, this may be relatively easy for full-time students regularly on campus, but it is an added stress for adult students who are on campus less often. Once again, electronic communication options should be explored.

  • Online self-service registration has made course registration much easier. But many first-time adult students are not familiar with the process, which often involves user names and passwords. They call the office not knowing what to do; too often these calls go to voicemail during busy registration periods. A simple video on the website that takes students through the registration process would be helpful.

Those of us who have worked in higher education for many years understand how the bureaucracy works and have learned to maneuver around it. But many of us forget what it was like the first time we encountered higher education. We need to be aware of the bureaucratic obstacles that our students face. But more importantly, we need to remove these obstacles altogether.

– – – –


[1] Cathy Sandeen, “How Operational Efficiency is Good for Everyone at the Institution.” The EvoLLLution, October 6, 2014. Accessed at

[2] Jake New, “Repeat Non-Completers,” Inside Higher Ed, October 7, 2014. Accessed at

[3] Awal M. Alhassan, “Factors Affecting Adult Learning and Their Persistence: A Theoretical Approach.” European Journal of Business and Social Sciences, Vol. 1, No. 6, pp. 150-168. September 2012. Accessible at

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Readers Comments

Mary Moore 2014/10/28 at 9:22 am

I think this advice is good for everyone, traditional-age or adult. How many 18-year-olds are any good at navigating outdated bureaucracies while trying to adjust to life on their own for the first time?

Grace Nickerson 2014/10/28 at 11:29 am

There really should be some sort of system for determining transfer credits. I entirely agree that it should merely be at the whim of each department head (particularly since universities often have an inflated sense of their prestige) but there should be some sort of equivalency program or standard to compare courses and insure student wishing to transfer have learned everything they need to know in their previous courses.

Stefanie Brumaru 2014/10/28 at 4:31 pm

It might also be useful to standardize the assigning of credits per course. It’s a small number, but there are still some institutions that assign one credit for one full-year class, a half-credit for a half-year class. Frankly, this makes a lot more sense to me personally, but I know it’s different in many other places and it might help with transfers if it were clearer across the board.

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