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Acting Their Age
Acting Their Age

Where do adult learners fit in the traditional education world?

By John DiConsiglio


Jose Luis Pelaez, Inc./Corbis

At 45, Carol Zahn found herself in the last place she ever expected to be: a classroom. She hadn't been a student for 20 years, since she graduated from Ohio's Wright State University with a communications degree. Now she was back in school at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, and she wasn't exactly there by choice.

Zahn is a displaced worker. About a year ago, she was laid off from her job as a software analyst, and she's been unemployed ever since. Zahn's not back in school for personal enrichment or to discover what she wants to do with her life. She is at Sinclair studying for a Web development certificate and hoping it will change her career prospects.

"What I know how to do is not really cutting-edge," she says. "I have the analytical skills, an attention to detail. I know how to troubleshoot. But jobs around here require a newer style of programming than I'm used to."

Zahn is taking a mix of online and night classes, and she's bypassing the entry-level courses that fill most students' schedules. "I don't need English 101," she says. "I have a bachelor's degree and tons of experience. I don't have to reinvent the wheel. I want to have a certificate in my pocket by the end of 2010."

Zahn may not be what most people think of as a traditional student, but she's rapidly becoming a typical one. Only 16 percent of college students fit the "traditional" definition: 18-to-22-year-olds studying full time and living on campus.

Between 42 and 45 percent of American students are "adult learners," according to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the U.S. Department of Education. They're over 25. They're returning to school for career change more than career advancement. And they're challenging the educational world to understand and meet their needs.

"This isn't a group of students that you can easily categorize and put in a box," says Brian Pusser, an associate professor at the University of Virginia and director of the school's Center for the Study of Higher Education. "It takes serious effort to find out who adult learners are, what adult learners want, and how you can give it to them."

Educational institutions have adult learners squarely on their radars. Over-25s are among the fastest growing student segments in higher education, NCES notes. Their ranks are expected to swell by 19 percent in the next seven years. They are a burgeoning academic market that most institutions are scrambling to reel in because they can strengthen an institution's position as a community resource; help cultivate partnerships with local businesses and industries; and, perhaps most important, generate both an additional source of tuition revenue and a new network of alumni and donors.

They are also presenting colleges and universities with their own set of challenges. Not only do adult learners require schools to make their services more mature—from online courses to adult student advocates—they're forcing schools to re-examine how they reach out to nontraditional groups.

"Traditional students are easy to find," says Pam Parsons, executive director of college relations and advancement at Montana State University–Great Falls College of Technology. "Traditional students come to you. With adult learners, you have to go to them."

Who are adult learners?

The old profile of adult learners still has some validity. Retired professionals still return to school to take the art history course they never got around to in their undergrad days. Corporation managers still enroll in night classes to secure a later-in-life MBA. "The term adult learner encompasses a wide range of people," Pusser notes.

But anecdotally, educational experts say many of the adults they now see in their classrooms are the so-called displaced workers—people who have either lost their jobs or fear they're about to. "They are going back out of necessity," Pusser says.

Like Zahn, they may not have cracked open a textbook in decades. They often feel like misfits on campus, where activities are geared toward younger students. And they are lost in classrooms, where instructors don't know how to reach them.

"This is a brand new experience for a lot of adult students," says Melissa Tolle, assistant director of strategy development and organization at Sinclair, where the average age of the 25,000 student body is over 30. "The traditional-age students know what the college process is all about. They are used to the academic environment. They can jump right in. For an adult, it's a surreal experience. They are not sure what steps to take and how to utilize resources."

In the last year, Sinclair has seen a 10 to 18 percent growth in adult learners. Adult students require as much, if not more, help navigating administrative processes as younger enrollees. Recovering transcripts, registering for classes, and applying for financial aid can seem like monumental tasks to someone who has been out of school for decades. "Adult students are like kids learning how to ride a bike," she says. "I think of the school as the parent who is jogging alongside them until they feel confident to peddle on their own."

Schools like Sinclair and MSU–Great Falls, where 40 percent of its 2,300 students are over 25, promote small orientation programs and networking opportunities with faculty, fellow students, and employment counselors. MSU–Great Falls makes vocational counselors available to incoming students, Parsons says. Sinclair also assigns admissions counselors to help students overcome stumbling blocks. And many schools promote services that help adults access online information and tackle their fear of technology.

"That's a big piece we work on—getting them comfortable with our internal systems," Tolle says. "Little things can make a huge difference—like working with them to feel confident enough to compose a paper in Word rather than by hand."

Zahn says she called four colleges before contacting Sinclair and getting the answers she wanted. "They seemed to know what I had to do before I even asked the question," she says. "They gave me target dates and deadlines. I barely had to think about it."

Giving them what they want

Most adult students seek a different learning environment than their younger classmates, one that focuses on the reality of their lives as they juggle family, work obligations, and school. "You have to give adults a light at the end of the tunnel," says Raúl Ramos, senior access and opportunity specialist with the Office of the Chancellor's Diversity Team at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. "You can't ask them to just invest four years of their lives when they have a family to support."

According to research by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, adult learners place a high value on programs with these characteristics:

  • Flexibility. Adult learners want programs that teach on their time, not just when it's convenient for teachers. "When you go back to school, you are making an opportunity cost decision," U.Va.'s Pusser says. "You are going to give up time—whether it's time with your family or your work. You want your school to meet you on your time."
  • Convenience. Adult students search for study alternatives such as online courses and off-hours learning. "We have thousands [of adult learners] taking classes online and at night. We have regional centers in their neighborhoods," Sinclair's Tolle says. "The point is to make it easier for them to get to us."
  • Credit for life experience. Adult learners want recognition for their past schoolwork as well as knowledge they've gained through work. "They want a school to give them some life experience credits and apply that to an actual degree program that will make them more marketable," Tolle says.
  • Accelerated completion. Don't disregard the benefits of English 101. Employers continue to look for the talents that introductory courses hone—such as critical thinking, analysis, and writing and communication skills. But adult learners know what they want—and they want it quickly.

    "The vast majority of adult learners never wanted to be in this environment, and they never thought they'd be here," Tolle says. "We work with each student to give them an action plan that helps them successfully transition into the academic environment. We try to align their life experiences with the right program and their individual goals—whether it's a short-term certificate or a degree program or just getting back into the workforce as quickly as possible."
  • Goals beyond a college social life. It's not always easy to gauge success with adult learners. It can ultimately mean translating their new education into a job. But less ambitious goals can be satisfying too.

    "We hear transformative stories of people who changed their lives through education, but that doesn't have to mean an MBA or bachelor's degree or even an associate's degree," Pusser says. "Let's say you are coming out of the workforce and you have no postsecondary educational experience. You go to a two-year college and pass a class. You are now a postsecondary learner. Passing that first class can be an important goal. It's a scaffold that you can build on."
A wide net

But even the most progressive course work won't entice adult learners if you can't find them or they can't find you. Many four-year institutions can rely on stacks of high school applications to arrive in the mail every January. But that's not typically the way adult learners access higher education.

"We have to go where they are," says Ramos, whose organization represents Minnesota's 32 state colleges and 350,000 students, about a third of whom are adult learners. "Community centers, professional associations, churches, barber shops, beauty salons. Anywhere adults congregate."

MSU–Great Falls' marketing has targeted local job services, including workforce development centers and temp agencies. Sinclair has partnered with a local TV station. It linked to the station's Web site and contributed to an "Economic Survival" report by offering tips for displaced workers who find themselves back in school.

Experts agree that attracting adult learners means crafting the right message to grab their attention—and making sure it can be seen or heard. Adult learners don't respond to "College is the best years of your life" ads, Ramos explains. Instead, he says, they want to see clear connections between the skills and knowledge they'll receive at school and revived employment prospects and future earning potential. Successful adult marketing is clear, concise, and direct, eschewing flash for basics, Ramos notes. It portrays students who look and act like adult learners, not teenagers.

Schools like MSU–Great Falls rely on well-placed radio and TV ads that include testimonials from real-life adult students explaining how the school eased their transition back to the classroom.

"You have to show them that college can lead to a better-paying job, a new career, a way to help pay [their] mortgage," Ramos says. "You have to give them something solid."

Rivier College in New Hampshire emphasizes hands-on learning and real-world projects for its 1,300 adult learners. Programs like the nursing department's clinical rotations at local hospitals give adults actual experience for their tuition dollars.

"Adult learners need a credential to keep themselves current and make themselves more marketable," says Matthew Kittredge, director of graduate and undergraduate evening admissions. "Getting experience under their belts gives them a leg up in the job field." Rivier also offers flexible options like eight-week courses that can rapidly return adult students to the workforce. "They are the consumer in the education marketplace," Kittredge says. "You have to give them what they want."

Making a match

Community colleges can often rely on experience and name recognition to attract adult learners. But that's not the case for Columbia University's School of Continuing Education in New York. The school awards degrees in industry-specific courses like actuarial science, resource management, and strategic communications. But with no open enrollment, many adult learners don't consider the Ivy League institution for their needs. Some are put off by what they perceive as a strenuous admissions process, while others don't know that Columbia even offers adult learning courses, says George Calderaro, director of communications for Columbia's School of Continuing Education.

"There are people who don't want an MBA so they say, ‘Why bother with Columbia?'" Calderaro says. "They don't consider that Columbia has part-time degrees."

Columbia eschews mass marketing such as subway ads that may give an impression that "it's an open enrollment, and anyone can get a degree or take a course here, which is simply misrepresenting the program," Calderaro says. Instead, the school targets marketing space in upscale media like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal or with professional trade organizations. "We have to put a stake in the ground in terms of what we offer and how we differentiate ourselves from everybody else," Calderaro says. "This is a very competitive marketplace."

Most schools agree that their most crucial recruiting resource is their own adult student body. "Word of mouth is our best marketing tool," Tolle says. Indeed, schools like Sinclair and MSU–Great Falls promote their adult students through alumni events and marketing campaigns. Their stories resonate with both recruiting and alumni and donor cultivation.

"Students are happy to share their stories, and it helps further our advancement ... and fuels the alumni network," says Rebecca Butler, Sinclair's senior director of marketing. "The message is: A) We have all been in that situation and we have succeeded, and B) the school was the reason we were able to succeed."

That was the case for Zahn, who researched different schools before settling on Sinclair. "I read articles. I talked to friends. I talked to people at job centers," she says. "Sinclair seemed to know my situation the best. Things are hard enough when you lose your job and you're going back to college. It means a lot when the school can make my life a little easier."

As Tolle says, "The most important message we want to send to adult learners and the one that may go the farthest in attracting their attention is: We can help."

In Short

Ripe Old Age of 25. Adult learners can have a hard time fitting in, especially those in their 20s. Unable to relate to their younger peers but without much to talk about with older adult students, this group is most likely to drop out. To combat this trend, the University of Canterbury in New Zealand created the 20 Something Club. In addition to regular social gatherings such as barbeques and pub outings, group members also support each other through study sessions and volunteer activities. In 2009, the group had 200 members and has now grown to 300; it even has its own Facebook group.

Ed on the Run. Why read about ecology when you can experience it firsthand in the deserts of the U.S. Southwest? Or how about learning oceanography while sailing across the ocean? That is the premise of an adult learning program called Exploritas that combines education with travel. Formerly called Elderhostel, the nonprofit began in 1975 with five New Hampshire colleges and universities and 220 participants. The program has now expanded to all 50 U.S. states and countries in Europe, and it annually educates 200,000 participants in 10,000 different programs. For more information, visit

Satisfaction Not Guaranteed. One of the best ways to engage adult learners is through word-of-mouth marketing. But what should you focus on? The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning recently conducted the Adult Learner Inventory study with almost 30,000 students from four-year public and private institutions, as well as two-year community colleges. The study found that outreach and financing were most important to adult learners. For more details, download the 2009 National Adult Learners Satisfaction Priorities Report.

Inspiring Ideas. Every adult student has his or her own reasons for heading back to school. In the book Kids, Have You Seen My Backpack ... ? author Donna Talarico compiles a variety of different stories into what she calls "an adult learner anthology." The inspiring stories are a valuable reminder about why this adult constituency is important to a campus—adult learners bring nontraditional experiences and unique perspectives to the classroom. One student in the book says, "The desks sure hadn't changed, but in the past 20 years, I sure had."

About the Author John DiConsiglio

John DiConsiglio is a freelance writer who frequently covers education.




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