Institutions need to accommodate the unique needs of their adult learners as we move forward in a post-COVID world

7 key ways to help returning adult learners succeed


Institutions need to accommodate the unique needs of their adult learners as they move forward in a post-COVID world

The rapid convergence of information and technology, the increased move towards automation and AI, and the changes in employment opportunities and environment caused by the pandemic have all accelerated the need for working adults who have some college credit but have not completed a degree to gain additional credentials.

While universities may well view these potential students as an attractive demographic to pursue–especially as they struggle with decreases in the “traditional” student population–there are specific aspects of difference that must be kept in mind if the needs of returning adult learners are to be met adequately, absent which these students are unlikely to attend public universities.

1. Recognize that they are different from “traditional” students
It is crucial that we recognize that adult learners, and especially those returning to gain a degree after years of experience in the workforce, have different needs and expectations from an 18-year-old. Their time is valuable; they come with tremendous real-world experience that is equivalent to, and often exceeds, a lot of coursework. Their expectations regarding the value proposition of time spent in gaining knowledge are justifiably high.

Unlike the 18-year-old in awe of an older instructor, these students are not overcome by titles and qualifications but come expecting the development of skills and talent, and the acquisition of knowledge, that will help them break through the glass barrier created by their lack of degree or accelerate their professional advancement by use of new knowledge.

These differences need to be recognized and addressed as related to the overall student experience.

2. Decrease “red tape” and unnecessary barriers
Individuals who have substantial work experience expect efficiency, customer service, and convenience—all aspects that are perhaps not at the uppermost of the general academic lexicon.

Ensuring that response times in areas ranging from admissions and financial aid to registration, transcript evaluation, and degree completion checks are short and that students do not have to run from pillar to post to get questions answered are essential if we are to meet the justifiable expectations of adult returning students. Asking them to find all old transcripts when the most recent one, or a certification that required it, was readily available is just putting up a needless barrier as is requiring them to repeat a non-essential course just because it was taken 5+ years ago. Similarly, taking months to complete an audit of courses to assess transferability is just not acceptable.

3. Provide credit for prior learning and experience
Many returning students have completed some level of coursework in years gone by and we need to acknowledge that, for a majority of them, the grades earned five or more years ago do not adequately reflect their current levels of intellectual skill, understanding and motivation. A “C” earned five or seven (or in many cases more) years ago should not automatically result in rejection for a course. Rather, subsequent work experience and performance need to be assessed, and accounted for, including through mechanisms of competency-based courses.

Similarly, asking a student to repeat a course despite their having taken a similar one in the past because it did not match exactly makes little sense. The use of supplementary online modules, or assessment of knowledge based on experience to bridge the gap, would be sufficient–and in fact, if the courses are close, this should not even be an issue. Yet, it is surprising how many times students are asked to repeat courses because of differences in title, and minor differences in scope.

4. Ensure flexible learning structures including accelerated programs
Presenting flexibility in timing, shorter-term lengths, and multiple starts is essential to ensure that we match the schedules and responsibilities of returning adults.

Our current semesters were based on the agrarian calendar and the concept of a credit hour was originally based on the need to devise a mechanism for pension for faculty. Advances in technology have made it possible for us to augment traditional forms of interaction and access through online/digital means, and it is critical that we use these, adopting best practices already largely implemented by the for-profit sector to afford opportunities that are not constrained by time, space or location.

Highly motivated and driven students with years of work experience could well complete tasks faster than their “traditional” counterparts. Let’s not use “time in seat” as a metric of advancement, or rather as an inadvertent means of slowing their progress to degree or completion of a credential.

5. Do not assume that financial aid is not necessary
Just because adult learners have jobs does not mean that financial aid is not necessary. Many have family responsibilities including children and aging parents. Returning to gain a degree may require cutting down on work hours, or the second job, and universities need to be aware, and cognizant of, their needs, as well as the nuances and intricacies of financial aid for those drawing a salary elsewhere. Rapid recognition of the difference and working to assist them rather than trying to use the same guidelines as those for more “traditional” students is essential.

6. Provide clarity in pathways to jobs
College is not a right-of-passage for these students. Rather, it is a means to a better future, a higher-paying job, and/or a more desirable career. Universities need to ensure that the curriculum and courses offer clear pathways to these goals and that academic knowledge is augmented by helpful career development centers and partnerships with the corporate/nonprofit sector to enable rapid progression. Universities need to enable this from Day 1, assisting in placement and career advising.

7. Enhance opportunities for network building
Returning students often are shy and need assistance in building networks and support systems for themselves within academic settings. Special efforts need to be made to do this, as well as to expand their horizons and opportunities through networking with alumni and corporate partners.

Universities that create a welcoming and supportive environment will not only attract this demographic but will ensure their success. These potential students are self-motivated and driven to succeed. We just need to create the systems that give adult learners a good experience, acknowledging that their presence on our campuses and in our classes adds a huge positive dimension to the educational experience of our “traditional” students due to the tremendous diversity of life and career experiences they bring.

And yes–all the steps needed to ensure their success are just as applicable to ALL our students. In fact, they are critical if we are to succeed today as we move forward in a post-pandemic world.

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