JUNE PANEL | What Are the Most Important Elements of a Successful Adult Higher Education Program?
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With the student demographic shifting dramatically toward adult and non-traditional students, higher education institutions must switch gears and design programming which suits their specific needs and demands. This month’s panel includes numerous recommendations as to how colleges and universities can adapt to this change. Photo by Optical Reflex.

Increasing numbers of adults are flocking back to higher education for a number of reasons. In response, institutions must gear programs towards the needs of their non-traditional clientele. As such, this month’s panel discussion focuses on defining the most important elements of a successful adult higher education program. This article presents the Rapid-Fire responses, and there are Extended responses by Elsa Núñez, President of Eastern Connecticut University; Heidi Maston, Co-Founder of CarpeLearning and Crystal Ryan, an adult student at Duquesne University.

High Quality, Low Cost
Walter Pearson | Dean of the School for Professional and Continuing Education, Lewis University

Adult students tell us that they care the most about academic quality, convenience, flexibility, and affordability. The challenge to those of us who lead adult-focused programs is to deliver on those qualities at a consistently high level.

We must work to support instructor effectiveness through careful hiring practices, methodical induction and democratic faculty development. We seek to create a faculty culture that treasures the experience of adult students as a critical classroom resource and enables them to receive credit for the learning they have gained in work and life via robust prior learning assessment processes. We must deliver high-quality services (advising, billing/financial aid, bookstore, library, and academic support) and course schedules and locations in ways that adults can integrate with the rest of their lives which are filled with work and family.

It is important to keep tuition as low as possible while maximizing grant forms of aid in order to lower barriers to opportunity and support persistence in our programs.

Flexibility and Support
Victoria Berling | Executive Director of Educational Outreach, Northern Kentucky University

In my experience, the most important elements of an adult program are flexibility, responsiveness, and personal attention. I believe adults care about academic integrity, and they want to “earn” (as opposed to “be given”) their degrees.

But, programs must be flexible enough to accommodate the unique needs and skills of adult learners. Adults also need to know that at least one person in the organization is listening to them—and rooting for them to be successful. Call it an advisor, an advocate, a “hand holder,” cheerleader, or any other label that fits, but it is a critical element for student persistence.

Workforce Relevance and Experience
Terence Gleason | Manager of Distance Education, Fullerton College

Instructors who are professionals working in a field relevant to the course materials are best able to guide adult learners.

The course materials and overall learning environment must have clearly stated goals and expectations. Adult learners often strive to learn every scrap of information that is available in their chosen area of study. They seek perfect scores and want A’s sometimes to distraction.

Working professionals are able to share experiences, and keep learning on track which contributes to high standards, and course integrity, in programs designed for adult learners.

Professional experiences from the student’s work place can be incorporated into the learning materials making the learning richer and more meaningful which would be expected to contribute to better results and higher retention.

Staying Focused on the Learner
Frank Palatnick | UN Advisor of Global Education, International Agency for Economic Development

The first factor is acknowledging that the adult has a vast amount of experiences to bring to the table. Any program should both take into consideration how to use those experiences as well as how to foster an individualistic approach in their curriculum.

The second factor should be diversity. Adult students are highly diverse and span across a range of social, educational, racial and religious backgrounds. Programs geared towards adults must understand that and guide their lesson plans while empathizing with them.

The third factor is understanding. The program should design curriculum that understands that they are adults and should be treated as such.

The fourth factor is listening and learning from them. In order to be successful the program developers must listen with all their senses as well as learn from their students because if we don’t, future educators will not know how to connect with them.

The last factor is trust. Adult education programs need to trust in adult knowledge/s. Adults have experienced a whole array of different environments and career paths. The understandings and teachable concepts should be trusted and taught to others in the class so that everybody can learn from everyone else.

In short, adult education programs should be based or created on the concept that it is a multi-teachable practice. The facilitator, the adult student and other students in the class should learn from one another.

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2 Responses to JUNE PANEL | What Are the Most Important Elements of a Successful Adult Higher Education Program?

  1. Quincy Adams Reply

    2012/06/22 at 10:58 am

    I see where you’re coming from, Victoria, but I don’t think student services should be as much as a priority as we have made them over the past few years.

    Ensure students have the resources they need easily available, and ensure that educators are ready to answer students’ questions when it comes to institutional procedure. The most important thing is making sure the cost of education is low enough that it is not a barrier for the overstretched adult student (see Elsa Nunez’s response).

    I think robust career advising mechanisms are far more important than student and academic services, when push comes to shove.

  2. WA Anderson Reply

    2012/06/22 at 2:13 pm

    I think workforce relevance, in terms of course materials as well as expectations of students, is vital for a successful adult higher education program.

    If students aren’t training mind and soul to be in the workplace when they’re coming through our institutions, they are already a step behind their competition when the time comes to apply for jobs

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