Published on 2014/08/12

What It Takes to Bring Adults Back

What It Takes to Bring Adults Back
Shifting gears to serve non-traditional students requires institutional administrators to understand and respond to the specific needs of adults.

The following email Q&A is with Dustin Worsley, assistant director of the Academic Center of Excellence and Adult Re-Entry Coordinator at Columbus State University. Over the past few months, more focus has been placed on the importance of serving the adult student marketplace, especially since recent reports indicate that 31 million American adults are already partway toward a degree. In this interview, Worsley shares his thoughts on the biggest challenges adult students face when it comes to re-entering higher education and discusses some strategies that could help them to overcome those obstacles.

1. Why is it important for universities to gear programming, and to focus outreach, toward the adult student marketplace?

In the state of Georgia, particularly at Columbus State University (CSU), we’re working fervently toward meeting Governor Nathan Deal’s Complete College Georgia goal of 60 percent of Georgians having some type of degree by 2020 in an effort to meet job needs in the state. There are not enough traditional (18 to 22-year-old) students matriculating from high school to colleges and universities to meet this goal. Therefore, it’s imperative to entice adult learners back to college.

2. From your experience, what are some of the most common barriers adults need to overcome when they consider enrolling at a four-year university? 

There are three major barriers adult students need to overcome when they consider enrolling in a postsecondary program:

    • Time: Many adult learners have families, jobs and other responsibilities competing for their time. It’s a challenge to find a program that’s flexible enough to accommodate the busy lives of adult learners.


    • Money: Financial concerns are another factor and potential barrier. The current economic climate has put a strain on household incomes and budgets.


  • Self-efficacy: One of the biggest surprises I’ve had working with adult learners is their initial lack of confidence. They’re apprehensive about the idea of returning to college; therefore they require reassurance, motivation and guidance at the beginning. Generally, after one semester of support, most adult learners have regained their confidence, understand expectations and no longer need extra support.

3. What can universities do to help adults overcome these challenges?  

Successful strategies and interventions are often subjective. First, universities can offer more programs, initiatives and services tailored for adult learners. Initiatives including “Go Back Move Ahead” will assist in engaging adult learners. CSU also has an office and resource center exclusively for serving adult learners. This space not only has a single point of contact (an adult learner liaison), but it also has a resource center with computers, network printer, study tables, TV, couch and coffee pot exclusively for adult learners. This space allows adult learners to connect with other adult learners. CSU also offers online and hybrid programs and courses that can meet the unique needs of adult learners.

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Key Takeaways

  • Given the declining population of high school graduates, it’s vital for higher education institutions to switch gears and serve the adult student marketplace.
  • Lack of time is the biggest barrier adult students must overcome when considering re-entering higher education, as there are a number of priorities competing for their attention.
  • Ensuring the institution has specific spaces and services designed to meet the needs of adults is a big step toward ensuring they persist toward a degree once enrolled.

Readers Comments

Elena Cole 2014/08/12 at 11:10 am

I think, by now, most institutions are aware of the need to target adult students. One concern I have is that some simply open up their enrolment to adults and start calling themselves “adult friendly,” without having made significant changes in their programs and processes that will help adults succeed. This piece is a good reminder of the key issues adult students face and the need to address them specifically.

WA Anderson 2014/08/13 at 10:40 am

I would add another barrier: prior learning and experiences tend not to be counted, which is a deterrent for adults who don’t want to sit through learning they already know. I find institutions are generally willing to be flexible about course scheduling or new supports, like a meeting space, for adults, but that they won’t budge when it comes to recognizing alternative learning. There’s this sense that the learning that takes place outside of their institution is not as legitimate. We need to change this perception and encourage more institutions to break down this barrier to enrolment.

Dustin Worsley 2014/08/20 at 10:20 am

WA, great point. The state of Georgia, and particularly Columbus State University has recognized this deficiency and has done great work over the past few years to award adult learners college credit for prior learning and experience. I foresee higher education continuing to evolve and be more receptive to alternative methods of credit (within accreditation rules and regulations).

Elena, you are correct. Being “adult friendly” is much more than enrollment. At Columbus State University we have an office, website, liaison, and resource center exclusively for our adult learners.

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