Published on 2012/11/15

Top Five Tips for Designing Adult Programming

Adult learners are extremely busy and higher education institutions should aim to ensure that their programming is personalized to their needs.

What are the top five ways a college or university can design a program to be adult friendly?

Today’s college freshman is totally different than the youngster of years past. Why? Because there are more adults attending college than ever before. This doesn’t spell the end of our industry, though; it just means we need to evolve with our students.

There are ways to be an “adult friendly” institution. Here are a few ideas.

1. Schedule classes around the work day

What does this mean? It means that institutions need to offer classes on weekends, Friday evenings from 4:30 till 7p.m., and in the early mornings from 6 until 8:30 a.m.

The days of having classes from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. are behind us. Class hours need to be expanded to assist working men and women in their quest for an education.

2. Offer classes that meet the needs of today’s working adult

Fine Arts degrees are not what this group of individuals is looking for. They need classes that will make them lifelong learners and provide them with skills they can use today. Offering classes in Health Information Technology, Advanced Manufacturing, and Supply Chain Logistics, for example, will enable adults to begin new careers or enhance their current career in both large and small ways.

3. Create blended learning opportunities

Offer blended learning classes that will enable adults to sign up for a class they might not otherwise be able to take – if they can participate in the class online at 10 p.m. after the kids are asleep or at whatever time of day is convenient for them, they can find ways to sharpen their skills and have someone nearby to answer questions and explain areas of concern. Providing adults with a chance to complete classes on their own schedules; with independent learning opportunities, will allow them to conveniently move through academic programs.

4. When are your ancillary services available?

You might want to consider opening up advising, financial aid, and the cashier’s office until 9:30 p.m. Busy adults need to have services available when they are ready to sign up, investigate, and work on their coursework. Some campuses pull the plug at 5 p.m. Guess what? They are missing out on a lot of learners.

5. Make the adult learner feel welcome

Maybe everyone doesn’t need to take that English assessment. Or maybe there should be assessments only for the over-30 crowd. Adult learners may not be ready to figure out where every comma should be, but they need to take advantage of one or two learning events to “test their mental mettle”. For adults, sometimes learning is a process, not a series of events.  It is important to provide adults with remedial and developmental educational opportunities that will help them get into the swing of college-level work, but equally important that these courses also remain relevant to the career goals of these students.

And yes, they might be absent more often than the “standard college freshman”; they travel for work, they have children and partners and parents to care for, and life doesn’t always run as smoothly as we would like. If your institution’s instructors feel that missing two classes warrants an automatic “F”, there could be problems ahead for your adult population. In my experience, adult students usually work harder, study more, and are grateful and graceful learners once the playing field is leveled for their “special needs.”

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Readers Comments

Belinda Chang 2012/11/15 at 10:03 am

I think the most important tip on this list (so much so that it may have warranted two “tips”!) is the focus on blended learning, and on online learning as well.

This is the most practical, cost-effective, and wide-reaching way to attract and welcome adult students. It actually encompasses two of the other tips: have flexible scheduling, and make services available outside of business hours. It is the simplest and most effective way for institutions to evolve; at least as a first step toward change.

Elle Peterson 2012/11/15 at 2:24 pm

Belinda, I agree with your thoughts about the value and power of “online”, but my concern with “online” lies in tip number 5: make the adult learners feel welcome. There is a risk with online learning that it feels impersonal and perhaps disconnected from the campus and from certain aspects of the higher education experience that a learner expects.

Of course there are lots of ways for this risk to be managed– and more and more every day. In fact, with the most well-run online programs, instructors and students alike have been known to say that they feel more engaged than in a face-to-face classroom scenario. I just think it is something to be aware of, and so regardless of medium and method, I would say tip number 5 is one of the most important. Make sure adult learners feel welcome.

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