student success

Addressing the Needs of Your Adult Learners

Brandi Phillips Executive Consultant for Student Success SolutionsJune 20, 2024

Colleges and universities are facing shifting demographics in student enrollments, including an increasing number of first-time and returning adult learners. As institutions determine ways to best support their students, it is critically important to identify student needs and relevant services based on specific student populations. Simply put, a “one size fits all” approach will not suit the needs of adult learners

A personal journey

Upon my return to college, during my personal journey as an undergraduate adult student, I was excited to learn about the resources that were available to help me reach my academic and personal goals. Similar to other degree-seeking adult students, I was highly dedicated and focused on the pursuit of my degree. I recently developed an infographic with data from 4,000 incoming adult students highlighting students’ strong commitment to achieving their educational goals along with key priorities and recommendations specific to adult learners.

Differences among incoming adult and traditional learners

Deeply committed to my educational goals
  • Adult learners: 96%
  • Traditional students: 92%
Wonder if college is worth the time, money, and effort
  • Adult learners: 16%
  • Traditional students: 29%

These data show that adults have slightly higher commitment and are less likely to question if college is worth the effort than traditional students. The reasons for this are likely because:

1) Among the multiple priorities many adult students manage, they identify college as the component that will help them upskill or reskill to better align their abilities with a specific career and/or higher paying position.

2) Adult students often have a specific career goal in mind when going to school, so they tend to be much more focused on successfully accomplishing the tasks needed to complete their degree than traditional students. This can lead to the myth that adult students have very little or no desire to engage (we’ll take some time to discuss this in just a bit!).

3) Traditional students tend to be more focused on their satisfaction with the institution in which they are enrolling. While adult students also want satisfaction with their college experience, they are even more concerned with ensuring that the institution offers the degree or academic program they wish to pursue.

During my undergraduate career, in addition to supportive and accessible faculty, I was fortunate to attend a university that implemented an Office for Adult Students (OAS). While students juggled families, work, and other obligations outside of completing their academic programs, in this environment, I and other adult students were able to flourish because OAS staff recognized that adult learners were multi-faceted. Not only did they share information early on concerning the offices of academic support services (including the variety of study skills, individual and group tutoring services available, and how to best incorporate them into our schedules) and career guidance (including an overview of assessments, online resources, and additional services offered), they also provided multiple opportunities to meet other adult students. The staff facilitated a variety of events and programs that eventually transitioned to being student-led to incorporate opportunities for student leadership. Activities such as informal coffee meet-ups, adult student-specific peer mentoring, small group meetings with adult upperclassmen (to provide newer students a method for connecting and learning tips and strategies for success), and in-person adult student orientations to welcome new students proved to be beneficial in building relationships and sense of belonging. Programming in support of student engagement is most often focused on traditional student populations, however the OAS staff knew that adult learners desired social connection. RNL’s data indicates the same— among adult students’ top 10 priorities, nearly half desire to meet new friends at an informal gathering.

Top 10 priorities for adult learners

  • 65% would like instruction on how to take college exams
  • 63% receive help to improve study habits
  • 58% talk with someone about getting a scholarship
  • 57% help selecting an educational plan to get good job
  • 56% talk about qualifications needed for certain occupations
  • 54% receive individual help to improve math skills
  • 47% would like to meet new friends at an informal gathering
  • 45% receive help on improving writing skills
  • 42% talk with someone about salaries and future for occupation
  • 41% help selecting an occupation suited to their interests

Another crucial component during my experience was the OAS team’s awareness of the specific concerns of adult students and potential roadblocks to our success. Their ability to provide support concerning ways to balance multiple commitments was important, helping adult learners to feel seen, heard, understood and valued. Whether via intentional communications through social media, email, a blog post (or, even better— a blog series), or campus/departmental website, adult students should have access to intentionally developed communications that provide strategies for focusing on school work and ways to manage multiple priorities. Topics can include basic study skills tips (ex.: finding quiet areas to study), the importance of self-care (ex: taking breaks, going for a walk), and even discussing their degree plan and course load with their advisor. For more data on incoming adult students and recommendations for supporting their success at your institution, download our 2024 Adult Learner Motivations to Complete College.

Would you like to know the needs of your specific student populations?

RNL’s Retention Management System™ provides institutions with immediate individual and aggregate data to determine academic and non-academic risk factors along with the top priorities of your newest students.

About the Author

Brandi Phillips

Brandi Phillips, executive consultant for student success solutions, works closely with colleges and universities to promote and support student success initiatives. In particular, Brandi provides guidance and support in using the College Student Inventory ™,...

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