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Five Ways to Make an Academic Program Adult-Friendly

A program designed with adult learners in mind will help older students succeed in higher education.

Earlier this year, census officials reported that three in every 10 adults in the U.S. held bachelor’s degrees in 2011. This represents a steady increase in the percentage of our adult population with a college degree; however, it is not enough to reach either the Lumina Foundation’s goal of 60 percent of the adult population with a postsecondary credential by 2025 or the Obama administration’s goal of having the highest degree attainment rates in the world.

Clearly, not all of this current 30 percent of adults with degrees earned their credential while they were between 18 and 22 years of age, and the estimated 22 percent of the adult population with some college but no credential are essential to reach and serve effectively in order to meet these national higher education goals. In fact, the National Center for Educational Statistics estimates that enrollments of students over 25 are expected to increase by 20 percent during the current decade.

Gleaning from years of experience and relevant research – here are the top five ways to effectively engage adults in achieving their goal of earning a degree.

1. Be a Partner

Adults bring a wealth of experience, wisdom and clarity with them when they decide to continue their education. While they value clarity and structure, they have a strong sense of self-direction. Form a strong partnership in which the institution first deeply understands the goals and desires of the adult learner and then outlines the path to goal achievement. As with any partnership, flexibility, mutual respect, and negotiation are key to long-term success.

2. Be Relevant

Adults learn best when the content is relevant to the tasks they currently face in their lives. Engage with local employers to define and design academic programs that prepare current students and graduates for work immediately.  Adult learners are strong critical thinkers, and are generally passionate about their own well-established values, ideas, and beliefs. Challenges to their existing beliefs are best integrated through the use of self-reflection and/or experiential learning.  Theories are most interesting when they can be applied to solve a problem or business challenge. Adult learners are eager to engage with theoretical ideas – as long as the ideas apply to their lives and goals.

3. Be Transparent

While adult learners are very self-directed and engaged, they also prefer a clear path and structure to their education. It is important for them to know why they are learning a particular concept and to understand how a given assignment will benefit them and contribute to their degree. Competency-based programs are one way to structure the learning process to clarify these linkages. In any curricular structure, adult learners prefer clear, well-defined learning outcomes and grading standards for each assignment or assessment.

4. Be Accessible

Adult learners of all ages are busy people with a great number of competing demands on their time. They have jobs, families, community service, and other commitments to which they may well feel more obligation than to their schoolwork.  Meet them where they are, and provide support and services from that place. For example, this may mean that student services, financial aid offices, and faculty office hours may need to extend beyond typical business hours. It is important to remember that one can maintain a high level of academic rigor without being procedurally rigid.

5. Be Efficient

No one likes to re-do something that they feel they have already done. Adult learners have a significant amount of knowledge and experience for which they desire acknowledgement. Academic programs must integrate this knowledge efficiently; well-researched methods include transfer-friendly degree programs, use of Credit for Prior Learning, and strong community-based learning approaches, including internship opportunities.  In some cases, institutional policies may be challenged to accept these methods, and adaptation will require strong academic leadership.

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