In 2018, adult learners made up 35% of American higher education enrolments. In fact, their rate of intake is growing faster than that of their younger peers. Around the world, more adults are looking to complete their degrees or add another qualification for better economic or career prospects. This is a trend the pandemic is likely to fuel. Experts like Clayton Christensen Institute co-founder Michael Horn believe enrollment will rise, “driven by adult learners looking to wait out the recession and use their time productively by skilling up.”
In this article, we explore this increasingly-important cohort. Be it to attract new adult learners or to retain the ones currently on their rolls, understanding them is the first step in delivering a great student experience.
Exploring the adult learner’s unique challenges
Apart from obvious differences in demography, adult learners are different from traditional learners in many ways:
- They are likely to have a full-time job and other commitments, because of which their schedules might be packed and unpredictable
- They might not be as tech-savvy, especially if they come from manual job backgrounds
- They might have financial constraints, and education could be seen as a luxury. For instance, UK colleges that hiked fees saw enrolment drop by 20%
- And of course, many are parents - as many as 22% of all US undergrads are, and many of their children might be studying from home themselves.
What we see here is a wide range: An adult learner could be a well-off techie looking to learn a new skill, an immigrant trying to get a degree to move up, or an active duty military personnel. The protagonists of the college-oriented TV series Community provide an excellent, if exaggerated microcosm of the potential range of backgrounds and motivations of adult learners - a high-school dropout, a Middle-Eastern film student, a single mom, a millionaire, a star football player, and of course, someone who desperately needs a real law degree. The heterogeneity of a class of adult learners is at once its biggest strength, and its biggest challenge.
“Re-engaging adult students... is definitely something that we need to be able to do if we want to meet workforce demands. Basically, we just need to be able to rethink delivering higher education.” - Leanne Davis, assistant director of applied research, Institute for Higher Education Policy.
Understanding the unique challenges of this cohort can help universities and even ed tech solution providers better tailor the student experience to suit their needs.
Designing the adult student experience - some thought starters:
1. Empathy is key
Understanding motivations, backgrounds, and challenges of adult learners can help personalize their experience. The course curriculum itself could thus be shaped to meet their needs - the San Diego-based National University System, for example, offers online courses as short as four weeks long optimized for adult learners, while some colleges award credits on the basis of past education or real-life skills. This is going to be an important factor as more than half of American adults who expect to need more education or training after this pandemic say they would do it online. For current students, personalised communication and financial aid can be a big motivator to continue learning, especially at this time. Charter Oak, for instance, froze their college fee and waived off their payment plan costs. Excelsior College has planned a virtual commencement ceremony, and NorthCentral University provides daily online support groups to help students cope.
“They need real opportunities to draw on their past experiences and give them a place where that’s not only OK, it’s celebrated.” - Northern Arizona University professor Corrine Gordon
2. Make resources available and easily accessible
Since adult learners might be stressed for time, simplifying access to resources will make their lives easier. This could include campus resources such as digital libraries, student facilities and university information. This could also include resources specific to adult learners. For example, Berkeley College has a section specifically for parent students, and the State University of New York has a page answering all potential questions military and veteran students could have. Since adult learners are a growing cohort, it might be a good time to invest in new resources that will attract and retain them - such as affordable on-campus childcare, online adult counseling, personal development programs, etc.
3. Facilitate communication and collaboration
Adult learners look for more than just academics - they look for fellow students with similar backgrounds and challenges, opportunities for networking, etc. On an academic front, this can be done by replicating classroom interactions with collaborative projects with peers and video chats. Outside the classroom, there is value in making them feel part of an alumni network. A study on non-traditional students’ sense of connectedness to their institution and their interest in alumni participation after graduation showed that this was indeed the case, benefiting both student and institute in the long run.
4. Provide personalized student support
With their varied backgrounds and motivations, adult learners will benefit from individualized support for both academic and non-academic needs. This is all the more important when they are learning remotely. One-on-one support with dedicated advisors and faculty is a good way to do this, and an app can help them book time during office hours. Surveys and check-ins via video or messaging can help understand how they’re doing and provide timely interventions. AI-led tools can help retain students by turning disparate data into actionable insights, and automating actions.
5. Help them stay organized & productive
Adult learners have a lot going on with their lives, with a time schedule more shredded than traditional learners. While online education may offer them some flexibility, it is still a balancing act. Universities can help them plan their day better with a collaborative, personalized digital calendar. An easy-to-use interface that consolidates their learning schedules, video classes, coursework, to-dos, reminders and even, interactions with advisors and faculty all in one place, can go a long way in helping them stay on track.
“The majority of college students today are not 18- to 22-year olds, and colleges need to begin to cater more to the lifelong learner, the adult learner, and certainly in this economy, individuals who need to retrain and re-skill for the next generation of jobs.” – Ted Mitchell, president, American Council on Education
As more adults turn to education, understanding their unique concerns will help shape a better student experience tailored to them. Equipping them with the right resources and tools can help them succeed in their academic career.