Identifying What’s Important for Adult Learners
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Identifying What’s Important for Adult Learners

In order to operate a successful adult higher education unit, administrators should ensure they’re meeting non-traditional students’ needs when it comes to accelerated programming that is affordable and accessible.

It’s widely acknowledged in education, government and corporate circles that adult learners will be critical to meeting higher education enrollment goals and providing a trained workforce to fill current and future jobs. However, for many adults, the idea of beginning or returning to college is a daunting task. Fitting a college education into one’s life situation with time, money, distance, educational preparation and many other challenges can often be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. As a result, many colleges and universities are looking at reevaluating their policies, practices, services and pedagogies to improve support for adult learners entering or reentering college.

Numerous publications have cited the issues that are most important to adults. For instance, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) and Noel-Levitz, a higher education consulting firm, have identified such institutional factors as cost, accessibility, job-related academic programs, services for veterans, opportunities for gaining college credit through prior learning assessments and career planning as being among the most important in transforming institutions into an “adult friendly” place that is more successful in attracting adult learners.

In addition, a vast majority of the prospective adult students we see, who are contemplating a start or return to college, ask the same basic questions: What will it cost? How many credits do I need to complete? Will I be able do it, given all of the other things going on in my life? Prospective students — especially adults — are consumers and they will shop around, as if looking to buy a car, for the best deal they can get. To me, it all boils down to what I call the Triple A factors for adult learners: affordability, accessibility and acceleration.

It’s important to keep educational costs as low as possible, and there are many ways to do that, but affordability is not just a matter of cost alone. Education requires an investment, one that often calls for financial and psychological sacrifices. Adult learners want to know that there will be a return on their investment — that they will be able to get that promotion or qualify for a new job, or just be able to keep their current job. They have other expenses and people depending on them for support. They need clear and concise information on how much an education will cost. They should only be required to pay for those things they really need to complete a degree. Many adults are not looking for the “college experience.” They should not have to pay activities fees or other fees for services they, unlike more traditional students, will never need or use. They need to know about all potential sources of financial support and must be able to establish payment plans they can realistically afford. The bottom line is that they need to know their education will be an asset to their future, not a liability.

Increasing accessibility to a college degree means many things but, to me, it means removing or limiting barriers to enrollment. It means reducing the amount of time and effort required to get through admissions, orientation, testing, advising and other traditional pre-enrollment activities required by many colleges. Let’s face it; going to college when you’re 40, 50 or 60 years old can create emotional insecurity, if not downright fear. It wouldn’t take much for the reluctant adult to decide not to enroll or to put off enrollment because it’s too complicated or inconvenient to do so. We should not perpetuate fear and anxiety in adults; they have enough without our help. Streamline services and only require the essential ones. Make others available but optional. Use technology to deliver services such as advising and orientation, and make the admissions process as clear and simple as possible. Accessibility also means taking advantage of innovative approaches to course scheduling and delivery. Use various forms of course delivery such as on-line, hybrid, modular, evening weekend, mini-mesters, etc. With today’s technology, the options are endless. The bottom line here is to manage and deliver academics and services such that they fit into a busy lifestyle.

The third A, or acceleration, relates to time spent on the task — making it as short as necessary. I’m certainly not talking about lowering standards or diluting degrees. But there are ways to shorten or accelerate the time it takes to complete a degree without lowering standards. Moreover, if you’re successful in providing accelerated degree completion, chances are you’re also helping with affordability and accessibility. There are many strategies for accelerating degree completion. For one, only require what is necessary. Don’t make students take elective courses that won’t count towards the degree. Referring back to scheduling, employ some creative scheduling that will allow flexibility for busy adults. Give them options for shorter duration courses, or ones that are offered on line or on weekends, which would allow students to take more courses at a time and finish them more quickly.

Consider transforming curriculum to a competency-based approach that allows students to progress at their own paces and only learn what they need. Finally, maximize efforts to accept transfer credits if appropriate and offer opportunities to gain college credit through prior learning assessment and challenge exams.

We’re committed to providing affordable, accessible and accelerated learning opportunities for adults. Perhaps you should be too.

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2 Responses to Identifying What’s Important for Adult Learners

  1. Henry Smalling Reply

    2013/01/18 at 8:23 am

    I think you’re quite right to identify affordability, accessibility and acceleration as the main concerns for adults returning to higher education institutions. You make some great points in this article; however, the focus seems to be on getting adult students into the institution (via incentives such as streamlined pre-enrollment activities or accelerated degrees), not as much on getting them through their programs and out the door. I just want to highlight that as an equally important aspect of creating an “adult friendly” institution.

    In practical terms, I think this means that institutions have to be prepared that they may have to offer services for adult students that are different from what is offered to ‘traditional’ students. For example, I can foresee the need for specialized training on academic processes (e.g. library research) as they are likely different from the business processes adults may be more used to. Perhaps some institutions might consider a peer mentorship program for adult learners. As you noted, it can be daunting to return to school after many years away. Unlike traditional students, who may easily find peer support through on-campus activities, adult students may have limited access to such opportunities. A mentorship program could offset any concerns of isolation. I could go on, but I think you get the idea – this is certainly an interesting and important discussion to have as senior administrators start to consider what “adult friendly” institutions might look like.

  2. Chuck Schwartz Reply

    2013/01/18 at 12:40 pm

    In parts of the article, it sounds like the writer is describing continuing education programs. For example, if I’m not mistaken, having classes delivered in alternative formats – condensed, weekend sessions, online – is a hallmark of CE studies. I wonder if instead of having to redesign the way higher education is traditionally delivered to accommodate adult learners, they could be encouraged to pursue continuing education programming. Perhaps the starting point for institutions is for their student advising office to do a better job of explaining the different learning opportunities available to adult students so they make informed decisions on what’s right for them.

    By making too many changes to the traditional program, you risk losing out on what higher education is about. The writer argues that one accommodation for adult students is the removal of courses that aren’t required for the program; in other words, electives. It may be true that a biochemistry student doesn’t need a current affairs credit to do his or her lab job later on, but higher education wasn’t necessarily designed for the sole purpose of making individuals job ready. It’s equally important for them to be well rounded, and this could be lost in the design of an accelerated degree program.

    If adult students are mainly interested in measurable returns on their investment, perhaps they would be better suited to CE studies.

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