Three Things Adult Learners Need to Succeed in Higher Ed

Imagine you’re a student balancing going back to college with a full- or part-time job and family responsibilities – maybe even caring for your children. As a former graduate student who worked full time while pursuing my master’s degree, I can tell you it’s not easy.

These students don’t have time to mess around. Because of all the demands on their time, they need a program that’s flexible, practical and delivers a measurable return on investment.

I can also tell you that today’s typical college students may not be who you think.

Nearly 40 percent of college students are 25 or older. These nontraditional students – also called adult learners – often work at least part time to afford tuition and living costs, and opt for degrees that are most likely to result in a job post-graduation, such as business and nursing.

In May, the Education Writers Association (EWA) hosted its annual seminar – a premiere conference for more than 3,000 of its journalist members. Leaders in the education space serving adult learners convened as part of a panel discussion to share how to best support these students.

Brian Jones, president of Strayer University (client), which caters to working adults, explained that these learners aren’t always looking for a cozy dorm room or spacious quad. In fact, they want programs and education opportunities that work for their schedules and fit into their lives today. Their experiences can be instructive for higher education overall as the “nontraditional” student becomes more typical.
Three key themes emerged from the discussion around what adult learners need to be successful:

They Need Flexibility

Adult learners don’t always have the luxury to take in-person classes. Every day can look different – whether it’s a sick family member that demands more attention, or an employer requesting support on an urgent deadline., adult learners need flexible scheduling options. Luckily, online education is filling this gap, from full online MBA programs to one-off online courses. According to a 2018 Learning House survey of online college students, features such as mobile accessibility to course content and online access to career services bring immense flexibility and value to the educational experience.

They Need Practical Degrees

Bottom line: adult learners have less time to pay back their education investments because they are older. Higher education must be more diligent in ensuring students receive measurable returns on their investment. Leaders from National University System, Strayer University and Northern Arizona University concurred adult learners often come to school with a practical demand, such as a career change. They want to be sure that the skills they’re learning today can be applied in the workforce tomorrow. For example, vocational programs at community colleges are gaining in popularity. Just last week, AT&T (client) announced a $50,000 scholarship to support students who enroll in a wind energy degree or certificate at Texas State Technical College. Other corporate-academic partnerships showcase how higher ed is responding to the demands of adult learners. For example, Starbucks and Arizona State University Online teamed up to provide tuition discounts to employees and Strayer’s collaboration with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles covers all the costs of attendance up front.

They Need Support

“Life got in the way.” That’s what panelist George Miller, senior education advisor at Cengage Learning, said he hears most often from students on why they went back to school as adults. Adult learners are taking a huge step enrolling in school, and it’s important for higher ed leaders to understand the extra support they need given all the responsibilities they’re juggling. From comprehensive programs to combat the challenges first-year students face, to guidance on mentoring resources, financial advice, or finding childcare, supports and services should span from enrollment to graduation to help adult learners stay engaged and reach their goals. Other institutions are considering innovative funding models, such as income-share agreements that encourage persistence, rather than offering tuition discounts up front. When higher education creates programs with these needs in mind – the institution is inevitably a more student-centered place.

As higher ed institutions are considering how to best serve their students, these conclusions show a shift away from the campus-based investments that marked college recruitment strategies in recent decades. With students seeking new and innovative models to help them earn degrees, schools should be looking ahead to leverage new technologies and strategies to ensure that students’ needs, expectations, and goals are achieved.

Team Members

Allison Kopp_2
Allison Stouffer Kopp

Senior Vice President

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