Boosting Adult Persistence

Beyond offering flexible course scheduling, what are the real keys to persistence and academic success for adult learners? Janet Daniel, director of the office of adult students and evening services at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, distills the current research into four key points that, when present, make a difference:

  • A central unit on campus to coordinate cross-departmental efforts to support adult learners, and which serves as a single, "one stop" point of contact for adult students
  • An intentionally designed orientation to help adults transition back into the college experience
  • Academic advisers (and faculty) who understand adult learners' unique needs
  • Extended office hours for key services and a campus-wide emphasis on availability and convenience

A Coordinated Approach, with One Point of Contact

Many campuses have particular services and staff that are equipped to help address the needs of adult learners, but they are seldom coordinated. Daniel speaks to the importance of a "one stop" approach to offering services for adult learners. Many adult learners are either first-generation students or have been removed from the college experience for enough years that they are not familiar with what offices to contact and when, or where to go to locate critical campus resources. Adopt a "one stop" approach by appointing one staff member or one office that is trained to listen to an adult learner's inquiries and direct them to the necessary personnel or services.

"Establishing a central unit," Daniel adds, "also communicates to adult students that the institution cares about their needs, that they have a place on campus, and that there is service and support available for them. It is an oasis office."

Ideally, this unit would include:

  • Access to well-trained academic advisers who understand the policies, curriculum, and academic procedures of the institution and are able to plan "on the fly" with students
  • A drop-off service -- allow adult students to drop off request forms and offer to secure the necessary signatures within two days; "rather than have them deal with the frustration of being redirected from office to office," Daniel suggests, "we can take that form right to where it belongs"
  • High visibility -- Daniel recommends publicizing the office's existence through the admissions website, through the admissions office at the time of admission, and through the registrar's office at time of re-admission; it's also important to think strategically about the space this office will occupy -- a basement office may not communicate to adult students that the institution values them

Additionally, this unit can assist in organizing a peer mentoring group for adult students, a nontraditional student organization, and with identifying financial support for adult learners. Daniel notes that most adult students don't realize that they may be eligible for scholarships, and that helping them find funds to apply for can remove one of the most significant barriers to persistence.

An Orientation for Adult Learners

Daniel also recommends holding intentional orientation programs for adult learners. These programs should focus 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

Timing and duration are critical: "Adult students place a high value on their time, and you want to communicate that you value their time, too." In addition to the main orientation, Daniel has recently piloted two subsequent "getting-started" seminars 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.

Finally, consider offering focused, supplemental one-hour workshops on topics such as information literacy and scholarship options.

Adult-Friendly Advising

Denise Hart, the director of adult education and creator of the Success Program at Fairleigh Dickinson University, notes two essentials to providing effective advising to adult learners:

  • Ensuring you have advisers who are well-trained and equipped to connect adult (not just traditional) learners with the resources they need
  • Adopting an "appreciative advising" or similar model, selecting and training advisers not just to provide overviews of a curriculum but to engage in active dialogue with adult learners about their aspirations and limitations in order to aid them in assessing various pathways to their chosen field

For example, Hart advises that it's critical that the advisers assigned to adult learners are knowledgeable about the array of credentials that an adult learner may come to the institution with (or may be seeking). If your institution enrolls many military or veteran students, you will want an adviser who has a military background and is familiar with both the training received in the military and the challenges military students face on campus.


Removing the Barriers to Adult Learner Success (May 2010)

Kenneth Vehrkens, dean of the Petrocelli College of Continuing Studies and associate vice president for lifelong learning at Fairleigh Dickinson University, adds that it is critical for advisers of adult learners to work with them early to develop a "blueprint" for their course plan that emphasizes both outcomes and flexibility. Because of their work and family commitments, some of your adult learners may be able to register only for certain terms in the year -- and their scheduling needs may change with little notice.

For example, one student may need to reduce credit hours or skip a term unexpectedly because of a change of employment or because they find they have hit their company's ceiling for tuition reimbursement. To encourage retention, help them cut through the red tape; they will need to be able to "stop out" and return for a future term without having to complete a lot of forms or take a leave of absence and then re-admit. Another student who is approaching an early retirement may want to accelerate her schedule in order to take advantage of tuition reimbursement while she still has access to it, and will want to know what evening, weekend, and online options you have available.

"Allow for self-paced scheduling, and be flexible," Vehrkens advises. "Good advising means responding to the individual needs of the student and helping them see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Adult-Friendly Faculty

"When designing an educational plan for the returning adult, you need to help them have a positive experience right at the beginning. When someone has been away from college for years and is now coming back, that's a difficult transition. Selection of their first course is important."
Kenneth Vehrkens, Fairleigh Dickinson U

To encourage the academic success and persistence of adult learners, Vehrkens recommends that academic advisers connect adult learners with adult-friendly faculty during their first term. These are faculty who understand adult students' situations, needs, and perspectives. Have advisers work closely with your faculty:

  • Offer faculty workshops to dispel myths about returning adults and to educate faculty about adult learners' motivations and challenges around balancing coursework, employment, and family commitments
  • Have advisers review student evaluations with faculty periodically, offering constructive feedback and engaging faculty in discussion of what was successful and what wasn't in teaching and supporting the adult learners in their classes

"Build a core of faculty members who want adult learners in their classes and understand the challenges adults face," Vehrkens advises, "and who can share their enthusiasm with other faculty."

Audit Your Campus Services: Focus on Availability and Convenience

Finally, beyond ensuring that you have a coordinated approach to advising and supporting adult learners, a true, student-centered investment to serving adult learners needs to include an audit of all campus services. For adult students, time is at a premium -- they are already carving out time for their studies from a calendar weighted with other high-priority commitments. If your services are structured or offered in such a way as to make further demands on students' time, this will only place further strain on their studies.

Interview your current adult students and find out where they find campus services lacking, and interview incoming students to learn what questions they have about the services available on your campus. Incoming students are likely to ask questions such as:

  • Is there a place for me to park near my classes?
  • Is there safe child care available?
  • Can I cash a check while on campus?
  • Is the bookstore open at night?