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Four Key Ways to Meet Adult Student Needs

Tyson Schritter / Abound and Colleges of Distinction

Adult students—those who don’t fall within the traditional 18-22 age range—are returning to colleges and universities in hordes to earn bachelor’s degrees for a number of reasons. Some are looking to change careers. Others have realized a bachelor’s degree will open doors to career opportunities currently unavailable to them. And others simply want to prove to themselves (or their families) that they can do it. That’s why there is much to know in making sure you are addressing adult student needs.

But adult students’ motivations for returning to school are just as varied as their needs and concerns. With some students returning to school after several decades of being away and others as parents and full-time workers, higher ed institutions must treat adult students differently than their traditional undergraduate counterparts. In fact, this is why more schools will need to look into forging organizational partnerships to increase adult student enrollment. As one article details, adult students’ “multiple roles and commitments increase the likelihood they will look for degree and certificate programs that provide them flexibility [and]… access to key student services.”

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With that in mind, here are four key principles to consider when serving and addressing the needs of your adult students.

Show Adult Students You Understand Them

An obvious mistake in your approach would be to treat adult students like they’re traditional undergraduate students. It’s not enough merely to direct prospective adult students to the standard undergraduate area of your website with only a handful of extra links and contact info for an adult student counselor—you need to compel them with a strong marketing story. Although the end goal for both traditional and adult students is the same—namely, earning a bachelor’s degree—that’s in some cases the only point of similarity.

A substantial portion of your website and marketing material should be customized specifically to meet your adult audience. Adult students want to know whether they can balance their busy personal and working lives, what class formats are available, how they can gain credit for previous schooling and work experience, and what access to professional and academic support will look like. 

Regis University’s website does an effective job of relaying to prospective adult students that the school understands their varied motivations by encouraging visitors to select what’s driving their decision to go back to school, be that fulfilling a passion, advancing in their career, or earning a bigger paycheck. The invitation to explore available adult programs based on prospective adult students’ interests and motivations also demonstrates that Regis is willing to meet students where they are as they explore their options.

Looking to increase adult student enrollment?
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In order to assist adult students with personalized attention, Excelsior College features a blog with articles addressing topics relevant to adult students busy with family and work obligations. From mastering positive self-talk to saving time in the kitchen on a school night to using library resources to knock out a paper, the blog offers tons of material to address adults students’ unique needs. It’s easy to see how a prospective student, after stumbling across this blog, would be confident that Excelsior will support them should they choose to go back to school.

The University of Houston is yet another impressive example of a university demonstrating its commitment to meeting adult student’s needs. According to a brief from Education Dive, “more than two-thirds of student-parents attending the University of Houston receive subsidies from the institution to help pay for child care.” Certainly, a university that is willing to help students address child obligations understands the challenges of adult students well. 

Make the Application Process Seamless

There are many prospective adult students who would like to go back to school, but getting the ball rolling in the first place can be a huge detractor. Adult students are often juggling several life commitments, and the last thing they should have to worry about is a confusing and burdensome application process. 

Therefore, it’s important to feature accessible counselors to meet the needs of prospective students as well as easy-to-understand steps detailing the application process. If prospective students have access to responsive counselors, FAQs, and plenty of information about the admissions process, they will feel less overwhelmed. And since prospective students are often exploring other schools, it’s also important to offer compelling and helpful material online regarding financial aid, program formats, student testimonials, and more. 

In addition to a helpful testimonial video featuring adult students, Capella University offers “Connect with Alumni,” a feature that enables prospective adult students to speak with someone about what the student experience is like. This is a fantastic example of a resource that helps prospective students make an informed decision as they research schools and navigate the application process.

One major hangup for adult students is the need to submit old transcripts in order to apply. They have often already accrued credit from another institution or otherwise qualify for credit for work experience, certificate programs, and other relevant experience beyond university-level courses. Consolidating and sending all of this material to your school can be a hassle for students, so it is crucial to offer clear instructions on how they can do this with as little trouble as possible. For example, Charter Oak State College provides a page on their website about obtaining credit for past experiences and offers relevant next steps in a clear manner.  

Looking to increase adult student enrollment?
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Highlight Available Academic Support

Many adult students come back to school after many years away and are therefore concerned about whether they will be able to adapt to and be successful in an academic environment. While it’s understandable why someone who has been away from school for a couple of decades may have some reservations, it’s important that your program instills confidence through academic support.

Support can come in the form of academic tutors and counselors who check in on students’ progress and provide assistance (or a point in the right direction) if needed. This can happen through faculty who make themselves available in person or over email (especially for an online course, where face-to-face interaction isn’t possible). Or it could include guiding resources for time management, writing papers, using the library, and other practical skills that every student needs to know.

Ashford University features an “Online Learning” section of their blog that covers topics related to taking online skills courses, avoiding plagiarism, and getting the most out of distance learning. While the blog isn’t enough to provide full academic support to students alone, it’s a helpful tool. In conjunction with committed faculty, concerned tutors and mentors, and other academic resources, it can ensure students receive the academic support they need.

Offer Adult Students Professional Opportunities for Growth

Many adults go back to school to change careers or advance in their current one. A degree, of course, will greatly help in achieving that end. But it’s not always enough; adult students also need to acquire skills and connections to navigate the world of work after they graduate.  

Ashford University’s Career Services has developed a “7 Step Career Roadmap” to help students be successful after graduation. From self-assessment tools to career exploration opportunities to marketing one’s self online, Ashford covers the necessary bases in helping students get the most out of their bachelor’s degree.

The University of Maryland University College (UMUC) offers “individualized assistance” to adult students at no cost to help them become successful after graduation. One way they do this is through mentorship programs, which provide one-on-one career coaching with alumni and industry professionals. UMUC also offers specialized mentorship programs for veterans, service members, and their families.

It’s important to acknowledge that a bachelor’s degree, though a necessary next step for many looking to advance their career, isn’t always enough. By offering professional and career services, you can further instill confidence in prospective adult students that earning a degree will be both worthwhile and rewarding.

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