Today, few students studying at colleges and universities fit the image of a ‘traditional’ student. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2012, growth in the number of students over the age of 24 is far outpacing traditional-aged students. As a result of this shift in demographics on our campuses, increased attention to serving adult students has been found as a way to improve their experience and to increase retention.
To serve adults effectively, institutions need to adapt and create a learner-centered culture focused on providing quality education as well as creating support services tailored to adult student needs. One critical component of effective service to adult students is excellent academic advising. Advisors can serve as a resource to help adults navigate through myriad services available to students, in addition to being a strong advocate in shaping policies that serve this student population. In particular, adult students benefit by having flexible transfer credit policies that honors students’ prior learning and maximizes applying credit to degree requirements. Advisors can assist by ensuring their advisees have been awarded the maximum number of credits and by encouraging them to take advantage of demonstrating their college-level knowledge for credit when the option is available.
Further, while advising is much more than helping students choose their courses, the right schedule can go a long way in helping students have a positive experience. Adult students have varied and complicated outside demands and may need assistance in choosing a schedule that will accommodate these conflicts. They may not be able to put their academic responsibilities as a first priority, but can work with an advisor to craft a course load that fits their busy schedule.
In addition, great care must be taken to ensure the courses adult students take will satisfy their degree requirements. Often, the prior course work an adult student transfers to his or her current institution leaves little room for flexibility or exploration to complete a program. Even a great learning experience will be unsatisfactory if the credits do not apply to the student’s chosen degree. Structured roadmaps that outline the requirements for a degree has been shown to lead to greater persistence and degree completion.
Advisors must advocate for individual adult students, but can also serve as institutional advocates for adult-friendly policies, schedules and services. When required courses are not offered in the evening or online, advisors can often offer options to individual students that eliminate barriers to degree completion. However, building relationships with faculty and department chairs that encourage the department to consider adding flexibility in gateway courses is also critically important to student success.
Finally, advisors can also assess their own department’s services and create a model to be replicated across the campus. Self-serve online resources, online advising sessions and expanded hours beyond the work day show adult learners they are an integral part of the college community. These services can then be expanded to other critical campus services such as academic tutoring, financial aid and new student orientation. The next step for advisors is to ensure adult students are aware of the suite of services available, always being mindful the academic language of an institution’s website is not always easy for adult students to translate.
In sum, strong academic advising is a key element in serving a growing population of adult students. As institutions look to welcome adult students to their campuses, they need to be ready to provide them with adult-friendly policies, flexibility in schedules, access to services and a team of academic advisors trained and ready to show them the pathways to successful degree completion.
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