Published on 2012/05/07
One way educators can aid adult student retention efforts is by showing their non-traditional students that they understand the particular challenges those students face and supporting students through rough-patches. Photo by Auntjojo.

Thanks to my work in the community college arena—a private college that has a mission of serving adult students—and with my wide-range of clients via the non-profit agency I serve, I see the value of investing time and effort into adult student retention across the board.

Several years ago I was an adult student and a very untraditional adult student at that. I was juggling the responsibilities of single parenthood with three adolescents, maintaining a part-time job, and attending college simultaneously. If my professors and advisors at North Shore Community College did not take the time to reach out to me and develop a connection, I could have been swallowed up by the struggles and challenges of trying to succeed. Instead they taught me the value of building a relationship with a student. As a result, if any of my students or clients miss a class, workshop, or an appointment, they immediately get a phone call from me. I take the time to let them know they matter to me and when I do not see them I worry about their well-being. This little effort goes a long way and I have really good results with student and client retention. My efforts contribute to their long-term success and perseverance.

Adult students, in general, have a lot more on their plates than their younger counterparts. They need to be able to succeed academically and balance their busy schedules between family responsibility, work, and learning. I wish more college professors and instructors could learn to be a little more understanding of the role and struggles these students represent. At least in the community college environment, the adult students are shown that they are appreciated and their wisdom is welcomed.

Looking back at my own experience as an untraditionally aged adult learner, I can share two experiences with you to demonstrate the perceptions of others and how these perceptions can affect an adult student’s opportunities for success or risk of failure. When I was attending a very fancy and expensive private 4-year university to complete the last two years of my bachelor’s degree program, I had a professor for an education course who found me intimidating in the classroom because I was older. She gave me more work than the younger students and showed me that she did not appreciate my contributions to the classroom discussions. She was the only professor of everyone who taught the classes I took who evaluated my work at less than an ‘A’ no matter how hard I worked. If this had happened to me more frequently I do not know if I would have been able to persevere. On the other hand, one of my 19-year-old classmates commented on how she and all of our other classmates figured out why I was doing better than all of them. When I heard that statement, I felt incredulous and I asked her why she and everyone else thought I was doing so much better than they were.

Her response was, “You do not go out drinking until 2 a.m. with us”.

To sum it up, I believe that adult students deserve the effort of faculty and staff to focus on their retention and encouragement to get them to achieve their goals. Even in the world of my non-profit work where I am charged with the mission of transforming the lives of low-income individuals into people who become economically self-sufficient, at first my colleagues were arguing with me and telling me not to expend so much effort by trying to get the clients to come to classes, workshops, and appointments. They were worried that I was going to burn out.

Instead, I have shown them that by making the effort, adult students can learn to believe in themselves and their potential for change and growth.

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Readers Comments

Katherine Stabler 2012/05/07 at 7:03 pm

I don’t know that I agree with you…

We’re preparing adults to be functional in the workforce, right? I don’t know many bosses who coddle their 30-something and 40-something employees. Maybe a taste of the real world in the classroom will prepare them best for the world of work

Marilyn Glazer-Weisner 2012/05/15 at 2:33 pm

In order to have the opportunity to give them a taste of the real world to prepare them for the workforce, we have to get them into the classroom and get them to succeed in the classroom first. By demonstrating that we care about their success or failure through a series of adult student retention strategies will assure that we will have them long enough to train them appropriately for the workforce. I have seen too many students slip through the cracks because when they needed a hand extended to them it was not. I have also seen and experienced the best practices and strategies that foster successful adult student retention and adult student academic and career success. I believe it is worth the investment of time.
Thank you for your thoughts, ideas, and opinions.

Jacky van Leeuwen 2012/05/15 at 5:07 pm

I agree, Marilyn. There are financial and family challenges for older students that take up most of their time and energy – as they do for non-students. Skills and strategies for succeeding at college are often not learned in high schools and/or families for first generation college students. For these very motivated students, belief in themselves, encouragement from the college community, and people to go to when help is needed are hugely important to persevere and complete their educational goals.

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