Published on 2013/08/21

Three Ways to Attract and Retain Adult Learners

Three Ways to Attract and Retain Adult Learners
The numbers of 18 to 22-year-olds enrolling in higher education institutions are declining, so institutions must adapt to serve the adult student market in order to remain competitive.

Serving adult learners is no longer a side business for many colleges and universities. Local, regional and global economies depend on the continuous education of working adults all over the world. With the impact of a growing number of adults seeking a degree, most institutions have developed and implemented intentional programs to attract and retain these students. The colleges and universities who are “getting it right” are growing and thriving amidst the decline of traditional-aged student admissions. Here are three characteristics of the schools that successfully attract and retain adult learners.

1. Effective Programming

Adult learners are just as interested in how their program will be delivered as in what their program of study actually is. Adults want flexibility in programming to attend classes outside of the traditional 16 weeks of study. Online, accelerated, evening, weekend and cohort programs are just some of the options adult learners seek. They are looking for colleges and universities to be entrepreneurial, offering programs that work in coordination with their busy, overcommitted lifestyles. Effective colleges in this category also typically have continuous admissions with one-on-one, personalized service for students.

2. Adequate Support and Structure

Adult learners require just as much attention, if not more, than traditional students. Many colleges and universities who get into the adult market overlook the support and structure they must provide these students. It is important to provide infrastructure for support services including veteran’s affairs, disability services, career planning, financing, tutoring and professor-student relationships. Successful schools provide support in all of these areas with onsite or remote employees and clear guidelines. Financing is one of the most critical factors for most adult students going back to school. Colleges should provide grants and scholarships tailored to adults, assist them with locating scholarships from other sources and provide multiple payment options, including monthly no-interest payment plans. The most successful adult-centered schools also provide specific training to their faculty regarding how adults learn. This helps professors to provide better instruction, more timely feedback and achieve more learning outcomes with adult students.

3. Policies for Persistence

One of the main goals for all colleges and universities is persistence to graduation. With adult learners, institutions have to create effective policies to help them with this persistence. In-house transition programs, prior learning assessment, educational pathways and degree mapping are some examples of these policies. Many students lose traction to graduation based on coursework not meant for college credit. Some colleges have mastered how to transition or bridge these students into a curriculum program without having them lose time or credit for graduation. Having a policy and process on prior learning assessment is also critical for adult learners, who usually bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the classroom. Mastering educational pathways with junior or community college graduates also creates a streamlined process allowing these students to get the most credit possible for their two-year degree. The closer a student is to that magic 120-126 credit graduation number, the more likely he or she will persist to degree completion. This mirrors the process for degree mapping. Students need to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel and realize how close they are to the finish line. Providing a degree map that shows students exactly what courses they have left to complete and when those classes are offered accomplishes just that.

While this certainly is not an all-inclusive list, it does demonstrate three of the major characteristics colleges and universities should possess in order to be successful with serving the needs of adult learners. Colleges should strive to provide the best possible service while keeping an entrepreneurial spirit as their policies, procedures and programs evolve. These are the colleges with character.

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Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, “State Policies to Bring Adult Learning into Focus,” 2008. Accessible at

Lumina Foundation for Education, “Returning to Learning: Adults’ Success in College is Key to America’s Future,” March 2007. Accessible at

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Readers Comments

Jason Bennett 2013/08/21 at 3:50 pm

The non-completion rate for adult students is both striking and worrisome. So many have been out of the system for so long, they’re uncomfortable when they return and, discouraged, they end up leaving early. Some would like to finish their credential, but run out of money to do so. Whatever the reason, the fact these adult students aren’t finishing their programs is troubling. I believe many institutions have done a decent job of addressing some of these factors, by providing counselling support, financial aid and so on. But we haven’t been proactive in encouraging students to keep going, such as through degree mapping, as Duff suggests. Let’s be inspired by this article and look for other ways to be proactive in showing adult students how close they are to finishing and what value awaits them at the end.

Kristine Harris 2013/08/22 at 2:02 pm

To add to Duff’s point about effective programming, I would say institutions also need more effective teaching. Unfortunately, many instructors — especially of adult students — enter the teaching profession because they are professionals in the fields they’ve been asked to teach. While they may be experts in their subject matter, they don’t necessarily have the ability to teach it in a way that engages their students. We need more professional development for instructors in this regard. I am confident we would see improved student outcomes.

Evan Duff 2013/08/26 at 4:39 pm

That is an excellent point Kristine! Some of the colleges that I have worked for have offered adjunct meetings and seminars to address this very issue. Not only should an instructor be skillful at presentation, facilitation, and teaching in general but also have knowledge about how adults learn. Understanding this will impact how they deliver material to these students. Thank you for bringing up this point.

Darlene Morrison 2013/08/29 at 12:12 pm

This is a great article and well pointed topic! As an adjunct professor myself, I find it necessary for professors to engage in the development of how adults learn. It will certainly add value to adults completing their educational goals.

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