The thought of adult learners has long conjured up images of small groups of people huddled around a hobbyist in a high school classroom at night. These days, they’re anything but. And the higher education industry is taking them very seriously.
Dogged by shrinking demographics and funding, higher expenses on increasingly sophisticated campuses and competition from alternatives in post-secondary offerings, colleges increasingly are looking for new ways to attract and retain this growing segment of their potential market.
A 2017 report from the American Council on Education (ACE) found that nearly 60% of undergraduate students enrolled during the 2011–12 academic year were post-traditional learners. This cohort of older learners is expected to grow through 2026, according to projections from the National Center for Education Statistics. ACE defines “post-traditional learners” as individuals who are over the age of 25, employed full time, financially independent or affiliated with the military. Those conditions often mean they have different learning needs and as compared to traditional students.
A report this spring from the nonprofit Public Agenda notes the importance of providing education and training tailored to their needs. “Higher education leaders, administrators, educators and policymakers need to understand adults’ aspirations, worries and needs as they consider whether college is worth it for them and, if it is, what college they will choose,” the report’s authors wrote.
Constance Iloh, assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine, echoes that sentiment. Writing in the Journal of Student Affairs, she explains that many colleges have "struggled to adapt to this changing student marketplace, often finding themselves burdened by traditions and practices that prove ill-suited for older students.” The students are often "invisible to higher education,” she continues, citing ACE data that found two in five institutions don’t target adult students, specifically, for general outreach, financial aid or other programs and services.
Is your institution doing the best it can to recruit and retain adult learners? Here are four, expert-recommended strategies for doing so.
Go the extra mile to understand them
Because adult learners don’t come to the university through the traditional recruitment process, college enrollment officials often haven’t taken the time to understand their needs, Iloh explains in her research.
For instance, a study commissioned by Champlain College and released earlier this year found that 72 percent of responding adults who considered returning to school had completed some college or earned an associate degree. Of those who didn’t finish, there is a reason they left their former institution, which admissions offices would do well to understand — though they typically don't.
"The staff at institutions don't have opportunities to interact with them and hear the stories that define their experience," said Craig Maslowsky, founder and CEO of education marketing software company New Ed and previously an enrollment executive at The College of Westchester and Lesley University. "This makes it difficult for enrollment staff to understand what these students are like, the challenges they face and the accomplishments they have had."
Enrollment experts caution: Don't make assumptions. Adult learners typically bring a wider variety of concerns and struggles — as well as strengths and skills — than do traditional prospects.
Thomas Gibbons, dean of the School of Continuing Studies at Northwestern University, said colleges must develop deliberate efforts to better understand adult learners and their concerns.
Make information easy to digest
Most adult prospective students want to improve their career paths. "About half of [adult learners] think pursuing a degree or certificate is a wise investment despite the cost, but the rest are not convinced," Public Agenda explains in its report, noting that this group of students is very concerned about taking on debt.
Wayne Smutz, dean of the Extension program at the University of California, Los Angeles, said colleges need to show these students — perhaps even more so than traditional students — how they can pay for their education and how their investment will pay off.
This should be done in a clear, transparent way. Administrators should also be mindful of efficiency when working with this group.
"Time is a critical resource for adult learners," he said. "Having to stand in line, being put on hold on the telephone for extended periods of time, and other delays or confusing messages are critical problems for adults. Universities need to find ways to have expedited services."
"The staff at institutions don't have opportunities to interact with [adult learners] and hear the stories that define their experience. This makes it difficult for enrollment staff to understand what these students are like, the challenges they face, and the accomplishments they have had."
Founder and CEO, New Ed
Colleges should also provide adult prospects with "an adult-friendly online experience" and attract them with search engine optimization and effective website material, Maslowsky said.
"Many institutions slap up non-traditional program information as an afterthought to their traditional student-centric experience,” he added. “Don’t make the adult student dig to find the door to relevant content. Present it up front and then send them down a path that will surround them with an experience that speaks to their needs."
Instead, colleges should provide adults with information that will be convincing. "We still too often see [words such as] flexible, affordable, convenience and career-focused as the primary messaging for these programs,” he said. “There needs to be a greater emphasis on what the student going into a program will gain that they can't find somewhere else."
Consider what they already know
One key obstacle adult learners face is their belief that they won't get credit in their new program for material they previously learned.
The Champlain study found that the vast majority of adult learners have completed some college coursework, so institutions should consider this when making adult learners aware of opportunities to transfer credits. Furthermore, the institutions should make transferring credits easy, and admissions officials should understand the process clearly so they can advise students in an efficient manner.
"Adults often come with a diverse lot of courses and credits," Smutz said. "Flexible degree completion programs are needed that take this background into consideration. Universities need to think 'What's best for this type of learner?' rather than 'This is what we offer.' Adult learners can take it or leave it."
Northwestern’s Gibbons said adult students are increasingly looking to link their credentialing and learning experiences to a career, and they’re looking for that option as they consider enrollment.
"There has been a big tick upward in shorter credentials that are linked to career opportunity, he said. “Students are looking to also stack these learning experiences and credentials not only to position them better in the job market but also to build toward a more traditional degree.”
Provide a variety of support
Iloh advises institutions study enrollment data on their adult learners to better understand their needs. Other experts say that the need for offerings such as child care and flexible schedules should be a given.
Adult learners’ other commitments can make consistent attendance difficult. In its report, Public Agenda noted that this can lead to completion difficulties, for example, by causing the student to transfer or reduce attendance to part time. And one in three will be unsure of what they want to study when they enroll — a figure that has increased since 2013.
That makes academic and career counseling a must, Gibbons said, even though the student already has considerable demands on their time. Such services should be offered and promoted in communications and marketing to prospective adult students. Maslowsky added that admissions offices must approach these students with more "empathy" and not assume they have fewer needs for support.