Returning Adults: Four Keys to Academic Success and Retention

illustration of a news article

According to a recent report by the Workforce Strategy Center, by 2018, two-thirds of the jobs in the US economy will require a postsecondary credential, yet 80 million to 90 million adult workers have low basic skills and are not qualified for those jobs.

These data suggest that over the next decade, colleges and universities will see steadily increasing demand for both certificate and degree programs from adult learners.

The Workforce Strategy Center report shares recommendations for a review of policy at the federal, state, and local levels. To learn what practices at the institutional level have an impact on the academic success and persistence of adult learners, Academic Impressions interviewed Denise Hart, director of adult education and creator of the Success Program at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and Kenneth Vehrkens, dean of the Petrocelli College of Continuing Studies and associate vice president for lifelong learning at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Hart and Vehrkens recommend four primary areas in which to focus investment:

  • Rigorous prior learning assessment
  • Adult-friendly advising
  • Preparing adult-friendly faculty
  • Establishing one point of contact for connecting adult learners with enrollment and support services

Prior Learning Assessment

“Providing credit for experiential learning often makes the bridge to the next degree for an adult learner. By accelerating these students, you are helping them move right along to graduation or into graduate education. And you are increasing the student’s satisfaction. You are creating an advocate for your institution.”
Denise Hart, Fairleigh Dickinson U

The key to putting in place academically rigorous prior learning assessment is to focus on offering structured options for students to demonstrate specific skills or a knowledge base that they have learned outside of an academic institution. “This isn’t about giving credit for ‘life experience’,” Hart notes. “You need to assign credit for demonstrated learning.”

You may, for example, have a media technology student who worked for a decade for a major television network and is now returning to school for a further degree, or a hospital corpsman recently discharged from the navy who wants to pursue his pre-med; he likely took coursework in anatomy and physiology in the military, and is probably already performing many of the tasks a med tech would perform in a hospital. A portfolio assessment that requires these students to demonstrate their prior learning can help to reduce the number of credit hours they need to take, improving their persistence and their sense of momentum.

Adult-Friendly Advising

Hart 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)

Vehrkens 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.”

One Point of Contact

Finally, Hart 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 “concierge” 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.

“This point person needs to have a good repertoire of individuals who the student can be referred to,” Hart notes, from the registrar and financial aid to mental health services, advising, and the deans and coordinators who handle particular academic programs or certifications.