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Putting Adult Learners at the Front of the Classroom: Considering a New Higher Education Model

The EvoLLLution | Putting Adult Learners at the Front of the Classroom: Considering a New Higher Education Model
Colleges and universities across the United States have a long way to go in creating environments that facilitate the success of non-traditional students, but changes must be made to ensure this demographic is accommodated.

The percentage of college students over the age of 25 is around 40 percent. In addition, the National Center for Education Statistics projects that enrollments of college students over the age of 25 will increase by 20 percent in the next eight years, compared with only 12 percent for younger students. While higher education has been aware of this trend toward an increasingly adult student population in recent years, more should be done to ensure that educational offerings and campus services meet a growing and diverse student body.

Today’s adult students are often called “non-traditional” to separate them from the traditional 18- to 24-old-group attending college directly out of high school. However, adult students are not a homogenous group. They may include students who commute to night class after working all day, or students who juggle child rearing and other family responsibilities while taking courses part time. The adult student population also includes students changing careers due to social or technological change, and those seeking short-term coursework to support job promotions.

How can the traditional model for college be reconstituted to more fully meet the needs of these adult learners? First of all, institutions of higher education must formally support adult learners by explicitly including lifelong learning in their missions. Making lifelong learning an institutional commitment can empower adult students. One way to do this is by granting adult students credit for previous work and life experiences. Credit by exam, credit by portfolio and credit for lifelong learning are all examples of granting credit for the experiences adult students bring to campus. My own institution, for example, has instituted a “reverse internship” program that allows adult students to validate prior work experience for credit.

In addition, we also need to recognize and value the participation and insights that non-traditional students bring to classroom discussions and group projects. This expertise could be leveraged through the use of learner-based instruction and collaborative learning. Such learning should be grounded as much as possible in realistic, relevant learning situations, the very life situations that adult students bring to class.

To further expand services to adult students, colleges need to provide more flexible scheduling to accommodate their busy lives. The traditional, full-time schedule of midday classes on weekdays does not work for adult learners. The same quality of courses offered in traditional time slots needs to be available online and at satellite locations; on weekends and during the evenings; and in accelerated formats, not just in semester-long courses. In terms of credentialing, in addition to traditional, four-year degrees that require full-time enrollment, institutions need to add part­ time bachelor of general studies degree completion programs and short-term professional certificates to the roster.

Besides flexible scheduling, methods of instruction need to be more varied as well. Learning styles vary among people of different generations and backgrounds. The knowledge that a 20-year-old uses to learn a new software program, for instance, may not be part of the experience of a 40-year-old student. Alternate course instruction that covers the same material and provides the same outcomes while taking into consideration how adult learners process new information will help non-traditional students succeed in meeting their educational goals.

Yet another critical element of going to college—financial aid—also caters to traditional students. However, many adult students are simply unable to take a full course load each semester. And family commitments often make the prospects of taking out a college loan daunting, even if they are eligible. Financial aid programs need to be more attentive to the needs of non-traditional adult students, either by relaxing credit restrictions as long as academic progress is being made, or finding other means to recognize and respond to the financial needs of adult students. Scholarship funds targeting adult students can also be expanded.

To recruit traditional students in the competitive higher education marketplace, colleges have added an array of amenities, support services and extracurricular programming to their campuses to enhance the student experience. More on-campus services should be developed to support the expanding adult student population. Whether an adult learner is a veteran, a single mother, someone with a disability or someone simply returning to school to finish their degree, their challenges are different from those of a student right out of high school. Academic advising, counseling support and career services, for example, need to be designed appropriately for older students.

In addition, more on-campus spaces, clubs and activities should be developed with adult learners in mind. An example is the Non-traditional Student Center at Minnesota State University, which focuses on providing access to healthcare, childcare and other services needed by adult students. In the same way, the University of Idaho has a Non-traditional Student Association to serve its non-traditional students.

As America’s population continues to age, the trend toward an older college student demographic will also continue. In addition to articulating a stronger commitment to lifelong learning in their missions, colleges and universities will need to enhance and expand academic programs and on-campus services to meet the needs of the growing non-traditional student population. More flexible scheduling, an advanced appreciation for diverse learning styles, and credit for the prior work and life experiences of adult students must also be considered if we are to meet the needs of the fastest growing sector of our student community.

None of these commitments to serving adult students comes without investment, and some experts have called for providing incentive funding to higher education institutions that are committed to increasing degree completion rates of adult students as part of base funding formulas. As the percentage of adult students on our campuses is likely to grow, such policy considerations must be given serious attention in state capitals across the country.

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