Coming Around Again

"Can everybody hear me?" seems like an innocuous icebreaker; a way to start a new class, particularly when posed by microphone-shy faculty member who would rather not amplify his or her voice. It is, however, a terrible way to greet adult students. This fast-growing group of learners is returning to college in great numbers seeking skill enhancement, career change, and community bonding. They bring life experiences, commitment to the class, and an eagerness to share their skills. However, they don’t want to be singled out for presbycusis.

Age-induced hearing loss aside, colleges are seeing an uptick in adult learners. The American Association of Community Colleges responded by creating the Plus 50 Initiative to serve this growing group. “A recession always brings more people to community colleges,” says Norma Kent, senior vice president of communications, American Associate of Community Colleges (AACC). “Between 2007 and 2011, we saw a 20 percent rise in enrollment with a significant portion being adult learners.”

The Plus 50 Completion Strategy kept track of these learners from 18 different community colleges for the last two years. The results would warm any teacher’s heart. The primary goal of the Plus 50 Completion Strategy was to serve 9,000 Plus 50 adult students across four years, with 3,600 (40 percent) completing a degree, certificate, or not-for-credit certificate. To date, the colleges have exceeded this goal, serving 9,292 Plus 50 students with 4,243 (46 percent) of these students completing a degree or credential. Four hundred (9 percent) of these students have secured employment since completing their program.

Recognizing the Issues

Four-year institutions also realize the potential of older students. Nyack College in Nyack, NY, has started the Division of Adult Education to cater to the mature, working student with great success. Over the past two years the retention rates for the School of Adult and Distance Education at Nyack College between semesters range between 80 and 100 percent. The average retention rate between semesters is 92 percent (175 students).

These victories are hard-won, however. Non-traditional students feel a bit like fish out of water. “They have lots of questions, ‘How am I going to make time in my schedule for school?’ or ‘How will this advance my career?’” says Julie Hood, academic chair for the organizational management program, Nyack College. “Successful adult programs have to recognize the issues and treat these learners differently.”

Initially adult learners need help navigating the experience. Most likely it’s been a while since they’ve sat behind a school desk, and there probably will be jitters. “They have anxieties about new technologies, about fitting in with their classmates, about where to find their high school transcript,” says Mary Sue Vickers, director of the Plus 50 Initiative at the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

Schools are addressing these needs with specialized counseling and credits for life experiences. Nyack College offers a multistep approach for ensuring success. “Each student has one advisor that they work with throughout their experience,” explains Hood. “Then students are grouped in a 12- to 18-person cohort that they work and study with. That group becomes a strong influence on the individuals, building loyalty and accountability.” Hood also points to online options and lots of professor accessibility. “We launched a completely online offering last year and that first cohort graduates in May,” she reports. “To avoid the feeling of isolation that can come with online classes, we have one night a week where we are all online together with a live session.”

What Adult Students Bring to the Table

Educators will find adults to be, “the students of your dreams,” according to Tracy Reily-Kelly, program manager, Corporate and Continuing Education Department, Clark College, Vancouver, WA. “They offer deep, critical thinking while bringing maturity and excitement to the classroom. And when there’s a snow day they want to know when they can make it up, not where to go skiing.”

Nurturing and fostering that excitement requires a change in teaching technique. Sergio Marini, Ph.D., associate professor, Social, Behavioral Sciences & Human Services, Cape Cod Community College, suggests turning from sage-on-the-stage pedagogy to andragogy, or the art and science of helping adults learn. In a recent presentation he points to the five principals of andragogy:

  1. Letting learners know why something is important to them;
  2. showing learners how to direct themselves through information;
  3.  relating the topic to the learners’ experiences;
  4. accepting that people will not learn until they are ready and motivated to learn; and
  5. helping students overcome inhibitions, behaviors, and beliefs about learning.

What Are They Choosing to Study?

What kind of classes are adult learners drawn to? “We see two groups of people. The first want to upgrade their skills so they can compete in the new workforce,” says Reily-Kelly. “Maybe they had a job in forestry or a factory that went away and now they need technological skills.” Reily-Kelly suggests a kind and patient computer teacher in a lab with magnified screens to help this group learn résumé-building skills.

The second group wants credentials in a completely different field. “Perhaps they are newly retired and ready for a second career,” she says. Reily-Kelly reports that this highly motivated group “enters the classroom at a high level and does well with online learning and customized education. They take everything from Health Informatics to Wine Chemistry. I see people who want to open a new business and take classes in Excel and Web Design to support that.”

Jacquie Scarborough, adult learner advisor, Cape Cod Community College, also notes another trend. “Many people at this stage in their life want to give back to their community,” she says. “I see them trading careers; accountants training for human services positions, for instance.” These learners also want their life experiences to be valued. Scarborough points to a Vietnam veteran taking a class on the Vietnam War. “He ended up co-teaching the class,” she reports.

While adult students are coming back to colleges on their own in droves, there are also ways to attract them. The Plus50 Initiative has its own YouTube channel, which Vickers calls, “Our best marketing tool. Schools should also have outreach programs, radio ads, and mailers.” One caveat though: “Any photography should include faces that look like the students you’re trying to attract. We have lots of photos of mature people to choose from.”

And use a big font size so no one has to admit to presbyopia.  


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