Published on 2012/11/14

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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Readers Comments

Chelsea Bellows 2012/11/14 at 7:45 am

I had a funny thought while reading through these five strategies to enhance an adult’s learning experience: I thought that, for the most part, these are principles that would enhance the educational experience of traditional-age students as well. Solving problems that are relevant to your life and experience; understanding why you are doing a certain assignment or test, how it fits into your degree, and the skills it will give you; feeling as if you are a contributor to the learning process whose ideas and “wisdom” (however you interpret that) are respected as much as the instructor’s authority; procedural or bureaucratic flexibility/accessibility.

These are all things that the traditional academy in general could use improvement on. I embrace the increase of adult students; not first and foremost because of the revenue they will generate, or the skill gaps they will fill, but for the way their perceived “different” set of demands is shaking up the academy’s assumptions and dated and rigid procedures and styles. It’s about time!

WA Anderson 2012/11/14 at 10:13 am

I think Credit for Prior Learning policy is the single most important method to increasing accessibility to higher education for adults in the USA if we want to achieve the goals of bodies such as the Lumina Foundation or the Obama Administration. Not only does it help to remove any stigma there might be and provide a psychological encouragement to enroll by showing respect for any kind of relevant experience (academic, work, life), it can cut down on the time and money commitment required, which helps both the learner and the school. Not to mention the richness it brings to any classroom or program. Policy makers take note: Credit for Prior Learning needs to be practiced more widely and researched more thoroughly so that it can be effectively implemented across the country.

James E. Miller 2015/09/01 at 5:09 pm


Credit for prior learning and experience is a really good idea, but is shunned by academia unless a prior academic course exactly fits one of the required course contents and prior credits were awarded within the past 5 or 8 years. Even then, the number of credits allowed to be transferred is often severely restricted and cut down. It seems the university’s need for cash flow trumps prior learning.

Prior experience gets an even shorter shrift. Only one university I applied to would give me any credit for my 41 years of law practice toward a Forensic Mental Health Counseling Master Degree and that university turn me down because my cumulative GPA was 2.97 rather than 3.0.

Deborah Bushway’s article, Five Ways to Make an Academic Program Adult-Friendly, is a breath of fresh air on academia to act responsibly with respect to prior learning and experience of adult learners. Deborah Bushway | Interim Associate Dean, University of Wisonsin-Extension ,

I understand that current academics’ ability and philosophy would find it hard to evaluate and give credit for prior experience, what with the vast array and inability to delve into that experience to any real depth. But, the solution is obvious. Ask the candidate student to write an in-depth essay describing in minute detail the prior learning and experience and how it relates to the degree sought. The student, then submits the article to an independent third party who has superior knowledge of the student’s field of learning and experience and their relationship to the sought-after degree. This expert then rates the learning and experience and the writing skill to the credits to be awarded.

This paper and the independent expert’s evaluation is then read by the admissions person or committee and given approval and award of credits, if any. The force of this approach can be compared with the force of learning from traditional academic learning, that about 15% of what is taught is retained by a typical student. I would give retention of academic learning at the 5% level while giving retention of learning from experience at the 25% level. Even if credits are not awarded, at least the student’s article should be a part of his/her’s portfolio and considered by the admission authority as supportive of the request for admission.
James E. Miller, BA, BS, JD

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