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Five Ways Institutions Can Create Experiences that Exceed Adult Student Expectations

The EvoLLLution | Five Ways Institutions Can Create Experiences that Exceed Adult Student Expectations
Transforming the institution to create experiences that meet non-traditional students’ value expectations demands institution-wide buy-in and focus.

At a minimum, higher education institutions are responsible for providing students with a quality education that adds value to their lives. While value can be measured in different ways, the majority of adult undergraduate students are enrolled for practical reasons, specifically for job preparation and/or career advancement.

Michelle R. Weise suggests that in considering higher education’s value proposition, “we have to think about what job it is that higher education is being hired to do in students’ lives.”[1] If we perceive our job as meeting the utilitarian purpose most adult students are seeking with their college investment, then our primary job is to equip them with both the hard and soft skills necessary for preparation and advancement in their careers.  We enter into a form of a partnership with them. Our responsibility is to provide them with the knowledge, skills and services that will help them achieve their educational and career goals. Their responsibility is to actively engage in this partnership by assuming responsibility and ownership for their own educational experiences and academic success. Honest feedback is critical from both partners so that mutual goals for student success and achievement are continually strengthened on an ongoing basis, resulting in a value-added educational experience and a relationship that continues long after students graduate from our institutions.

To that end, here are five suggestions for how institutions can create truly value-adding experiences for their adult undergraduate population:

1. High-Quality Faculty with Expertise in Teaching Adults Learners

In Noel Levitz’ 2007 National Adult Priorities Survey Report of 72,815 students from 203 institutions, respondents rated “Instructional Effectiveness” as the most important factor contributing to course satisfaction.[2] Howell and Buck found that “faculty subject-matter competency,” “relevancy of subject matter,” and “general classroom management” were significant contributors to course satisfaction among adults.[3]

Perhaps the most important responsibility for continuing education administrators is to hire adult educators who not only have the content expertise in the subject matter, but have expertise in adult learning theory and the ability to apply that knowledge in their teaching. Faculty who are attuned to their students’ learning styles, engage all students as resources for one another’s learning, and connect learning to real world situations add value to the adult undergraduate experience.  Instructors who utilize the breadth of student backgrounds and experiences inherent in the adult classroom create an environment for adding value to every student’s education.

2. Faculty who go Beyond the Classroom to Help Students Succeed

Faculty who teach adult students add value by demonstrating their support and respect for their students’ life roles and future goals. Some adult educators show a keen understanding of the stresses and anxieties resulting from the multiple roles adult students take on and the fact that school is often not the most important priority in their lives. “Student workload” was found to be a significant contributor to course satisfaction.[4]

While this acknowledgement must not diminish rigor, lower academic standards, or reduce academic integrity, there is nonetheless an awareness of the obstacles adults may face in continuing their education. With awareness comes a stronger emphasis on helping adult students succeed both inside and outside the classroom. Some faculty add value by going beyond their job requirements and taking on a mentorship role. They might also provide additional help to students before and/or after class, or refer them for tutoring and other services offered by the college. Since many adult students are first-generation college students, faculty mentors add value by helping adults navigate the bureaucracy of higher education as they learn to advocate for themselves.

3. Administrators and Staff Who Really Care About Students  

Partnerships are based upon mutual trust and respect, but some students are treated with neither. Most of us have heard from students who were passed from one office to another without ever having a staff person take ownership of the problem. Or, we’ve heard from students who call during regular office hours only to keep getting an answering machine. Among the top challenges adult students identified on the 2007 Noel Levitz National Adult Priorities Survey was getting “the run-around when seeking information at the institution.”[5]

This is a simple problem to fix, but it requires all staff to accept a partnership role with students, and a strong institutional commitment to a service orientation to all students. This will often necessitate cross training among staff and empowering staff to handle problems; it may mean changing work hours so that student service offices are open some evenings and weekends. But the institution that provides student services at times that are most convenient for adult learners demonstrates an investment in their wellbeing, retention and academic success.

4. Addressing the Skills Gap

Since most adults pursue an undergraduate degree for job-related reasons, it’s critical that institutions address the hard and soft skills gap identified by employers. Key strengths of continuing education adjunct faculty are the professional work experiences many of them bring to the classroom and their ability to teach directly to the skills employers seek. Further value is added when the curriculum encourages internship and co-op opportunities; when Career Services offers evening and weekend appointments and workshops; when academic departments sponsor networking events with current students, alumni and employers; and when non-credit courses are offered free of charge on job seeking skills.

5. Continuing Education for our Graduates

We continue the partnership with our students after they graduate. As continuing educators, we remain committed to providing opportunities for them to connect with the campus and continue their education. Our doors remain open to them both physically and virtually. We conduct surveys to assess their programmatic needs, develop courses and workshops to meet these needs, and welcome their active involvement on committees that allow them to give back to the institution in whatever way they can.

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[1] Michelle R. Weise, “Adapting the Higher Ed Model to Suit Today’s StudentsThe EvoLLLution, March 2015.

[2] Noel-Levitz, Inc. (2007). The 2007 National Adult Student Priorities Report.

[3] George F. Howell Jeffrey M Buck, “The adult student and course satisfaction: What matters most?” Innovations in Higher Education. June 2012, 37(3), p. 215-226.

[4] Ibid

[5] Noel-Levitz 2007

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