Published on 2013/07/01

Four Ways to Attract Today’s Adult Students

Four Ways to Attract Today’s Adult Students
As more adults enroll in higher education programs across the United States, institutions must make changes specifically geared toward better serving this student population.

There has been an increasing interest in postsecondary education by adult student populations over the past few years, spurred by the weak national economy and recognition of the need for a better educated workforce in the competitive global marketplace. Knowing how to engage and best serve adult students has been somewhat challenging for higher education providers, however, because there is no ‘typical’ adult student. They span multiple generations, often working their education in around the demands of home, family and a job. This article suggests four areas of critical need that, when properly met by higher education providers, will greatly improve the success and completion rates of adult students.

1. Counseling Assistance

There are a variety of reasons adults choose to go to college. Once that decision has been made, however, the next steps in learning how and where to start the process can be daunting. It is crucial adult students receive guidance with the admission, degree planning, course selection and registration processes. The delivery methods of assistance are an equally important consideration.  Technology can be an effective way to communicate, but postsecondary counselors should never assume adults are familiar or comfortable with technology. Many adults may prefer face-to-face interaction with counselors. For them, there’s no substitute to having a ‘live’ person to contact who can address their questions and concerns.

2. Academic Support

Many adult students are returning to the classroom years, or even decades, after leaving school.  Therefore, institutions should expect adults may need additional support in order to succeed in their coursework and have a number of different interaction methods established for this group of students.  A few ideas for addressing this critical area include individual tutoring sessions, organized study groups and scheduled gatherings to discuss good study habits, note-taking skills, course-focused research, exam preparation and more.

3. Financial Aid

There is a common misconception working adults have access to sufficient disposable income to fund their education and do not need as much financial aid as a student who has just graduated from high school. That may be part of the reason financial aid programs designed specifically for adult students are so few and far between. Policymakers who want to encourage adult populations to pursue higher education need to examine the aid programs available at the federal, state and institutional levels and consider the differences in how traditional and adult populations are served.

Several factors can influence an adult’s ability to receive financial aid, with timeliness of the financial aid application and enrollment intensity being the most significant. Adults who decide to go to college shortly before the term begins frequently miss financial aid deadlines or apply too late to take advantage of aid programs with limited funding. Many aid programs also reduce award amounts for students enrolled less than full-time and may provide no assistance at all for those with less than half-time enrollment. This means adults who take a few courses at a time may be unintentionally reducing or completely eliminating their financial aid eligibility. All of these ramifications should be clearly communicated to any potential adult student during their initial counseling contact with the institution.

4. Flexible Scheduling and Course Delivery Options

The last two areas of critical need are very closely related. As mentioned, adults are frequently juggling a multitude of responsibilities while pursuing their educational goals. It is for this reason alone that flexibility on the part of the adult student, as well as the institution, is essential for success. Many institutions have recognized the flexibility adults need in their schedules by offering courses at times convenient for the working adult. But this flexibility must also be demonstrated through the way courses are delivered to students. Online courses provide flexibility for tech-savvy adults. And a growing number of institutions are thinking outside the box in terms of the traditional semester calendar by offering courses in mini-terms and modular formats. These creative scheduling solutions can make it easier for adults to complete degree programs by taking back-to-back courses in increments as short as four to six weeks. These non-traditional approaches may initially appear intimidating to the adult student just returning to college, so institutions may consider designing a more traditional delivery format which can gradually transition to a more technologically-driven instructional method.

Adults are very adaptable, primarily because of the varied life experiences they bring to postsecondary education. Institutions best serving adult students and exhibiting the highest rates of completion are those carefully integrating and implementing the areas of need identified here.

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Readers Comments

Zandra Thomas 2013/07/01 at 4:13 pm

Flexibility in course delivery is a benefit not only for adult students but traditional-aged ones as well. We don’t often think of traditional-aged students as caregivers or breadwinners, but they increasingly are, though they would not be considered “adult” or “returning” students. Greater flexibility would help this group.

Natasha Rubin 2013/07/01 at 9:04 pm

There certainly is a need to better connect adults to financial aid. However, the challenge remains that there is currently very little aid available to them. Institutions and aid-granting bodies (both government and private sector) need to look at changing the criteria for eligibility.

They should also consider making the application more streamlined and, at the same time, more flexible. For example, Gilpatrick makes a good point that adult students may miss application deadlines and consequently lose out on available funding. Issues such as this could be addressed by perhaps creating a rolling/ongoing financial aid application process for adult students.

Anthony Day 2013/07/02 at 9:57 am

We often confuse online processes and courses with convenience, but Gilpatrick rightly points out that some of the students targeted for these improvements do not have the tech expertise to benefit from them. Higher education administrators and staff should identify the ways prospective adult students feel comfortable interacting with their institution and stick with those.

Earl Harewood 2013/07/08 at 4:25 pm

Thank you Rebecca for sharing this wonderful article. I wonder given the very complex work environment we are functioning in if an aspect of play would heighten attendance and push to the finish line? Would it soften attrition and even give learners a more wholesome learning experience? Just a though since play adds to a person’s health and well-being which can facilitate better mental agility and learning. All these drive success so can this be the missing component in adult learning that can take them over the top all round?


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