An Innovative Model for Adult
Student Orientation

Adult students have different experiences, expectations, and educational goals than traditional-age students, and they approach their transition to college with different questions and challenges. As nontraditional and working students occupy an ever larger percentage of the student demographic, adult student retention is rapidly becoming a priority at many postsecondary institutions.

To gather a few tips for setting adult students up for success from the outset, we reached out to Janet Daniel, director of the office of adult students and evening services at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Daniel has recently piloted a new model for adult student orientation, and we wanted to learn more about the model, the guiding principles underlying it, and initial steps for other institutions that may want to attempt a similar approach.

Read this article in a 2011 edition of Higher Ed Impact: Monthly Diagnostic for a review of key elements that, when present at your institution, make a significant difference in adult student success and retention. One of the four factors is an intentional approach to adult student orientation.

The Model at UNC Charlotte

The main orientation for adult students at UNC Charlotte focuses on:

  • Connecting adult students with their key point of contact on campus, with advisers, and with support services
  • Helping them plan a schedule
  • Showing them what technology they will need to register, and how to use it

Beyond this “traditional orientation for nontraditional students,” however, Janet Daniel has recently piloted two additional programs that she calls “nontraditional orientations for nontraditional students.”

First, UNC Charlotte offers two subsequent "getting-started" seminars for adult learners during the summer. These are evening seminars that last for one hour, and if a student is unable to attend the first one (or desires a refresher), they can attend the second. They function as 101-level crash courses.

Second, UNC Charlotte offers four different “transition seminars” -- supplemental one-hour workshops on specific topics. These seminars are brief and focused; "adult students place a high value on their time,” Daniel notes, “and you want to communicate that you value their time, too."

Each transition seminar is characterized by:

  • Clearly defined outcomes that are clearly communicated to the students (stepping into that hour, the adult learners know what they will be able to use the information for when they depart)
  • Partnership with service providers across campus to provide the most critical information
  • A hands-on approach (adult learners complete specific tasks during the seminar)

UNC selected its topics for the transition seminars based on both the national research on factors that boost adult student persistence and on surveying its own adult student population:

  • Information literacy (including an introduction to the course management system)
  • Academic planning (during this hour, advisors help adult students conduct a degree audit, so that they can leave the hour with a definite road map for moving forward)
  • Financial planning (including the types of aid available, how to write a statement of purpose for a scholarship application, and the uses of the FAFSA; many adults assume they don’t need a FAFSA if they don’t intend to take out student loans, not realizing the FAFSA is needed for consideration for many grants and scholarships)
  • Career planning (offering a 101-level overview of career services available and guiding students through available career assessments)

Guiding Principles of the Approach

What’s notable about UNC Charlotte’s approach is that its intentionality, its basis in data on adult student needs, and its thorough instructional design. When asked to share guiding principles behind UNC Charlotte’s approach, Daniel offered the following:

  • Flexibility in timing and duration -- this requires some analysis of student data; are your institution’s adult learners primarily working adults who may need evening and weekend courses? Or are they students who are returning to school full-time and taking a daytime schedule?
  • Efficiency and focus -- a compact, trimmed-down, rapid delivery of the information adult students need most
  • A hands-on approach and a tangible outcome; adult learners value leaving the seminar with a degree audit or a strengths assessment in hand, or with specific next steps for seeking financial aid
  • Intentionality in tone and communication, ensuring that adult learners know they are being treated with respect and partnership, rather than being condescended to

A “transition seminar” is more than just an information session. In fact, it’s more than just an orientation. Learners are intended to take specific steps during the session and have specific steps to take after the session to manage their transition into the institution.

Initial Steps

If your institution doesn’t currently offer a discrete orientation for adult students, consider these initial steps toward such an effort:

  • Work with the office responsible for designing and delivering the traditional orientation to include content relevant to adult student concerns; if your institution offers an online or virtual orientation, this is an especially critical step given that the flexibility of an online orientation will appeal to nontraditional learners with hectic schedules
  • Plant the seeds for providing further support for adult students by having critical conversations with representatives of key services across campus (financial aid, career services, the academic library) and with the office responsible for student orientation.

“Frame these early conversations deliberately,” Daniel advises. “Everyone’s busy. This is a conversation about improving student success and student persistence. Pull the data on what percentage of your student body is nontraditional. Reference the literature on the factors that impede and the factors that contribute to their success. Start there.”

If you are interested in piloting an effort similar to UNC Charlotte’s transition seminars:

  • Reach out to service providers across campus (financial aid, career services, registrar, academic advising, etc.) to brainstorm about both the content that’s most needed and the tasks or activities that adult learners need to practice or complete during these sessions, in order to improve their success
  • Partner with your institution’s teaching and learning center or instructional designers to ensure that the seminars have an intentional and focused design with clear, tangible outcomes