Attracting and Retaining Adults: Adults Succeed in Programs Envisioned for Their Ambitions and Busy Lives
Schedules matter. Program duration matters. Pace of course offering matters.
When adult learners consider going back to school, one of the first questions they ask is: “Can I succeed while juggling work and family?” If the answer is “yes,” the follow-up from the learner is: “How soon can I graduate?” They want to see the light at the end of the tunnel at the time of application.
Mature adult learners are focused on how their schooling can benefit their careers and their families. These students know college is demanding; nonetheless, most seek to complete their education as soon as possible so they may apply what they have learned to job advancement opportunities, new job prospects, or they seek an education so they may meet increasing professional standards needed to preserve existing jobs. In all cases, the need for accessible, quality education is valued.
Scheduling is Key for Accessibility
Access to education refers to many things. Several factors can impact one’s ability to successfully complete a degree including cost, admissions, accessible content for learners of differing abilities, and course schedules. Opening a door through university admission alone is not enough to ensure access. Access without success is just an open door to a potentially empty place. If learners are unable to complete coursework in a reasonable timeframe, the education becomes effectively inaccessible.
Because busy, adult learners are goal-driven, creating programs that foster their success is essential. It is no longer acceptable to only offer a traditional university calendar of classes and assume that if students really want the education, they will find a way to make any schedule work. Options exist that allow learners to achieve success in school while managing family and career commitments. However, not all options for busy adults are created equal. To best serve these multi-tasking, mature students, university programs must devise schedules that fit into the lives of these ambitious adults.
Accelerated Programs are Preferred
General notions suggest associate’s degrees require two years of study, bachelor’s degrees take four years to complete, master’s degrees can be completed in two years, law school requires a three-year commitment, and earning a doctorate is a four-year endeavor. There are variations on this theme, but as a general standard, these are common ideas people have as they consider going back to school. Therefore, when a program offering is structured such that it requires less time to complete than what is considered “normal,” adult learners perk up and listen.
Summer and Faster Completion Rates
How can schools hasten a program’s pace without sparing quality? Oftentimes programs plan their completion dates based on an assumption that summer is “off” or optional. Yet, by treating summer like a regular term, a 21-month program can become a 15-month program. Hence, in less than a year and a half, a student can complete an associate’s or master’s degree. What’s more, when a program is typically three years in length, as is the case with most JD programs and many master’s degree programs with practicum requirements, a six-semester, 33-month program can be completed in approximately 24 months. Lastly, while skeptics of accelerated programs may worry student’s will burn out with year-long schedules, in fact, breaks are possible between terms. The math is simple. Four 12-week quarters or three 16-week semesters equate to 48 weeks a year, allowing for 4 weeks of breaks a year—plenty of time in the winter, spring and summer to vacation with family.
Where there is a will there is a way. Goal-driven adult students generally prefer a fast and furious approach toward completing their education. Students succeed in accelerated programs and tout schools that provide them the opportunity to efficiently achieve their goals—and alumni support among those in the workforce is not a bad thing for social media PR or alumni fundraising campaign efforts! The will to offer accelerated programs typically fails at the school level. While learners are ready to complete a program that runs through the summer other university breaks, faculty members and traditional higher education leaders oftentimes do not wish to create programs that cut into their customary “off” times, and they are more likely to hold onto the notion that students need slower paced, conventional schedules to succeed. While students and innovative programs have proven these notions wrong over the past three decades, resistance to change unfortunately exists among many established colleges and universities.
A Steady Pace Wins the Race
The pace at which a program is set is as critical as program scheduling. As we have stated throughout this series, mature adult students manage families and work; adding school to that equation is challenging. As well, many of us recall taking several classes in one term when we were in college, and we remember how challenging it was to keep up with class assignments when professor demands competed among classes. However, a solution to this dilemma can be created by the program development planning team.
First, courses can be shortened and intensified so one might offer multiple classes over the same period of time as usual, but do so consecutively. For example, if a master’s program would typically offer 2, 16-week classes in one term, a re-design of the courses, to 8-week sessions running back-to-back, will solve the issue. The intensity of study is heightened with shorter classes, still, students can focus their attention on one area of study at a time.
Second, faculty work to integrate their curricula so course assignments work well together rather than conflict. Examples include adjusting exam and paper submission dates in concurrent classes to avoid student burnout. Or, faculty might find common topics within their concurrent classes that permit overlap in readings and assignments, allowing students to complete assignments relevant to each class, but focused on common topics in the concurrent classes. Student-centered efforts like these can make accelerated programs manageable and high-pace offerings achievable for busy adult learners without impacting learning quality.
California State University, Northridge Examples
Examples abound of programs seeking to be mature-student centered. For example, a typical M.S. in taxation might require 2 years to complete. However, program in 2007 that has remained highly competitive for nearly a decade.
In psychology, the completion of a master’s degree with a practicum obligation can require learners to study for 3 or more years. However, by applying accelerated scheduling and thoughtful pace measures, the M.S. in Applied Behavior Analysis at CSUN has created a highly successful master’s program that can be completed in just 2 years with graduates going on to doctoral programs and earning certification.
Finally, accredited Master of Public Heath (MPH) programs are typically 3 to 4 years in length for working midcareer students. Taking into account the notion that adult learners need options permitting them to complete degrees, including internships, CSUN offers a allowing adults to raise families, work and complete their graduate education in just 27 months.
This is the fourth installment of an ongoing series by Jennifer Kalfsbeek breaking down the top 10 features of programs designed for busy adult students.
Author Perspective: Administrator
Author Perspective: Community College