The Changing Student Demographic: What You Need to Rethink

Increasingly, academic leaders are becoming aware that the traditional, 18-year-old high school graduate enrolling as a freshman at a four-year institution is a shrinking demographic. According to data from the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES):

  • Three -fourths of today's college students are nontraditional
  • 49 percent are enrolled part-time
  • 38 percent work full-time
  • 27 percent have dependents of their own at home

These adult learners interact with your institution -- from admission to commencement and beyond -- in ways markedly different from traditional students. A diverse, heterogeneous demographic, adult students comprise working mothers, career-aged adults seeking a career change or a safe harbor amid a troubled economy, military veterans, and adults of all ages returning to complete a degree. These nontraditional learners are often both hard-working and determined. Unless compensated by an employer, most are paying for their tuition out of their own pocket, and many are allocating time to their education that could be devoted to family, commitments within their community, or other career-building activities.

In other words, it's likely that most adult students enrolling at your institution have the will to achieve and the will to complete a degree. Yet many unintentional barriers persist to a positive student experience at your institution -- barriers that represent a series of missed opportunities as this population grows. Projects such as USA Today's Take America to College (2010), which offers video recordings of nontraditional students describing their challenges, demonstrate how many adult students face difficulties in finding courses, advisers, and faculty that are attuned to their learning styles and schedules -- and must wrestle with curriculum design and academic policies and procedures that were not designed with the needs of adult learners in mind.

Adult students don't just learn differently, they go to school differently.

Charles Cushman, The George Washington University

A Whole-Campus Approach: From Reactive to Proactive

Many institutions serve adult students in a largely reactive mode. Recognizing that there are barriers to enrolling, retaining, and graduating adult students, a growing number of colleges have adopted some scattered programming to aid adult learners (such as piloting a prior learning assessment, offering a veterans center, or adding resources in the career services center dedicated to the needs of adult students). Fewer institutions have committed to a more holistic and intentional strategy for recruiting, educating, retaining, and building affinity with adult learners. In the absence of such a strategy, you risk under-serving and under-utilizing this rapidly growing nontraditional student population.

In this issue of Higher Ed Impact: Monthly Diagnostic, we have interviewed a variety of experts from marketing, curriculum design, academic advising, advancement, and other functions to get a big-picture look at how institutions can make the most of adult students on their campuses. We will walk you through the following key components of a holistic strategy.

Adopting a more flexible approach to your curriculum

Your institution's efforts to both attract and retain the growing population of adult students have to begin at the curricular level. No amount of investment in marketing or student support will make up for a curriculum and an academic calendar that does not meet adult learner needs. For example, many working adults may be able to take only one or two courses per term. They may well be determined to complete their degree, but it is likely to take them longer than it will take many traditional students. Others may have the means and the dedication to accelerate their progress, or may be enrolling having already received advanced training that they will wish to apply toward their degree. Institutions leading in this area have found economical and academically rigorous models for offering working students a high degree of flexibility.

This issue will offer practical strategies for adapting the curriculum to adult learners from Charles B. Cushman, Jr., currently a professorial lecturer at the Graduate School of Political Management at The George Washington University, and Denise Hart, the director of adult education and creator of the Success Program at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Recruiting and admitting adult students

Adult students approach your institution with high expectations for clear, efficient communication and customer service; yet too often, they are confronted with an admissions process tailored not to their needs but to those of high school graduates. Many prospective adult students will lose both interest and trust in your institution's readiness to serve them if they can't easily find the information they most need on your website, or if they are routed through different offices without having their most pressing questions addressed. Also, applicants who have not attended college for some time and are now returning may be unfamiliar with the admissions and financial aid process generally.

Making your institution competitive in recruiting and enrolling adult students will require a thorough rethinking of how you communicate with them at each stage of the admissions funnel. We've tapped the expertise of adult-recruiting veteran Mike Barzacchini, director of marketing services for Harper College, to offer perspective on what practices work.

Boosting the persistence of your adult students

Many adult students face competing demands on their time (such as family, a full-time job, or military service) and lack immediate access to a peer group. Additionally, student services, from campus life to counseling, are more often attuned to the needs of traditional undergraduates than working adults. To note one logistical example, working professionals often cannot see faculty during afternoon office hours; similarly, student services, financial aid, the registrar, and even the campus bookstore will likely be closed to them if these offices are only available during business hours. This means that one of your most "at-risk" populations may have limited access to help when they are most in need of it.

As you enroll more adult students, it will be crucial to coordinate cross-departmental efforts to support adult learners, employ advisers who are able to work collaboratively with adults to develop their learning plans, and develop intentional orientations, seminars, and peer mentoring opportunities for adult learners. Janet Daniels, director of the office of adult students and evening services at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, offers some practical tips for moving forward.

Cultivating affinity among adult students and alumni

Institutional leaders have been paying increased attention to student philanthropy, recognizing that in an environment of diminished state funds and more restricted donor support, it will be critical to adopt a long-term strategy for building the donor pipeline by engaging future alumni while they are still students and while your institution has its best opportunities to build affinity. As the percentage of the student body that is nontraditional grows, leading institutions will need to develop plans for building affinity with this population.

There are significant barriers to doing this. The relationships adult students build with their institutions are usually very transactional, and because so many adult students pay tuition out of their own pocket, they may have little awareness over the importance of philanthropy to the institution or its relevance to the education they have received. Approaches that work with traditional students and alumni are less likely to work with the adult demographic. We've interviewed key thinker Don Fellows, president and CEO of Marts and Lundy, for advice on cultivating affinity with these students.