Study: Adult learners’ high aspirations must be matched with strong support

Mari Normyle

Assistant Vice President for Retention Solutions

May 10, 2016

Last evening, I had the privilege of attending an adult learner “PHT Awards Ceremony” at my former institution. PHT stands for “Putting Him/Her Through.” It’s an opportunity for graduating adult learners to thank those who helped “put them through.” As each student came forward, shared their stories, and thanked the mothers/fathers, wives/husbands, children, faculty, and staff who made the difference in their successes, three themes emerged: courage, sacrifice, and gratitude.

These students had the courage to commit to earning a college degree while raising families, working part and full time, and facing their fears of whether or not they could be successful. They all shared a willingness to sacrifice—time with family, financial resources, and sleep—in order to realize their goal of earning a degree. And, finally, they expressed gratitude for the support they received from their families, but just as significantly the support they received from the faculty and staff at this institution and the resources that were readily available for their use.

Their personal stories reminded me that over 20 years ago, my first experience working with students in higher education was with adult learners: I was asked by my college’s president to take on the marketing and expansion of a Prime Time program for adult learners. In this new role, my first step was to meet currently enrolled Prime Time students and get to know them. What I learned was both inspiring and concerning.

What inspired me was the students’ uniform dedication to earning a college degree (finally!) at this time in their lives and their willingness to make the sacrifices necessary to reach that goal. What concerned me was that, for many of these students, there was a critical need for additional assistance (academic, financial, personal) that had to be addressed in order for the student to persist and succeed.

New study:  Adult learners’ aspirations and need for support

Our new report Motivation of Adult Learners for Completing a College Degree (just published in March 2016) affirms that the critical issues of first-year adult learners are still the same as I observed years ago. These students are overwhelmingly committed to achieving the goal of earning a degree and, at the same time, expressing very specific needs and requests for assistance that must be addressed in order for them to succeed.

Let’s first take a look at the study’s findings showing adult learners’ high commitment to completing a degree, based on responses from over 5,000 first-year adult learners at the beginning of their studies in 2014 and 2015:

Proportions Of Incoming Adult Learners In Agreement
Click image to enlarge

The strength of this commitment is remarkable, yet we know that motivation changes over time and that adult students may be just as vulnerable to forces of attrition as traditional-aged students. Attending to the areas in which adult learners are needing assistance, and ensuring that these students are connected with resources that meet these needs, will help more adults earn their college degrees in a timely manner.

Areas of need

Incoming adult learners in the study also reported some of the key areas of assistance necessary for their success:

  • Eighty percent reported that getting information about qualifications for careers would be helpful.
  • Almost 70 percent wanted help with improving their math and writing skills.
  • Almost 60 percent wanted to receive instruction on improving test-taking skills.
  • Almost 50 percent wanted to improve their reading skills.
  • Almost 50 percent wanted to talk with a counselor about financial assistance.

Several key recommendations emerge from the data in this report:

  1. Study the concerns of incoming students, including your adult learners. Understand what are their priority needs and how those needs may differ by gender and first-generation status. Use this motivational data to align resources with the needs of this student population.
  2. Bring career counseling to the table sooner rather than later. As part of the orientation process, introduce your adult learners to the career services staff in your institution and schedule appointments and workshops early in the students’ enrollment.
  3. Offer reading development assistance as well as math and writing support. The ability to read, as well as the confidence in one’s reading abilities, has a direct influence on academic success across all subject areas.
  4. Identify at-risk adult learners as early as possible and have targeted interventions in place so that problems can be addressed, and resolved, before they become crises.
  5. Affordability is a concern for adult learners—continue helping them gain access to all of the financial resources available to them and use technology to connect them in a timely manner. One of the most promising ideas I’ve seen recently is using text reminders to continuing students about completing the FAFSA each year so that funds will be available for the next year of enrollment. Adult learners could use some support prompts, too!

As more and more campuses expand their student populations by recruiting adult learners, we also must be mindful of what helps adult learners succeed. This new report offers insight into the aspirations of first-year adult learners and the areas in which they need help in order to realize their goals.

Questions? Want to conduct your own study of incoming adult learners’ needs?
As a retention consultant for Ruffalo Noel Levitz, I am available to discuss campus plans and strategies for increasing completion rates and can introduce you to our 20-minute needs assessments for incoming students, including adult learners. Contact me at 800.876.1117 or email me to get in touch.  I wish you all the best in your work with adult learners this coming year.  Always remember, they need your support!

About the Author

Dr. Mari K. Normyle, assistant vice president for retention solutions, works directly with colleges and universities throughout North America supporting student success and retention efforts through student motivation assessment and early alert programs. With more...

Read more about Mari's experience and expertise

Reach Mari by e-mail at Mari.Normyle@RuffaloNL.com.

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Enrollment, Student Success