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Meeting Them Where They Are: the ‘Concierge’ Approach to Serving Adult Learners at CUNY CSI

Posted by Carlo Bertolini

Topics: Best Practices, working adult learners

Neila Green is director of adult learners and an adjunct professor of psychology at the College of Staten Island (CSI), which is within The City University of New York, a CAEL member. She has a knack for building rapport with adult learners, something she says she owes in part to her graduate degree in counseling psychology. So it’s no surprise that she’s at the center of CSI’s Adults Returning to the Classroom (ARC) program and what she describes as a concierge philosophy to CSI’s support of adult learners, who total nearly 1,000 students. (For the purposes of its dedicated programs, CSI designates students 30 or older as adult learners).

Green, who has been in higher ed for 35 years, became director of adult learners in 2016. Ever since, like any good concierge, she’s taken pride in being the go-to person for connecting people with what they need – even if they aren’t always sure what that is.

“Depending on where they are in their life, their challenges can be very different,” Green says of adult learners. That’s why she hesitates to pronounce any challenges principal among them, aside from perennial concerns like money or time.

She recalls one overwhelmed student who sought her help. The student was spending a lot of time photographing presentation materials during class, making it difficult to keep up. Green showed the student how to access the school’s online platform, where the professor’s PowerPoint presentations were available to any student.

Of course, many of the adult learners she helps are fully proficient and comfortable using online resources. But they may be less confident about returning (or beginning) college at a nontraditional age. Some are there only to upskill to increase their employability. Others are doing it for personal pride. Some are motivated by family members – in more than one case, their own college-attending children. Green recalls one mother who was enrolled in the same class as her daughter.

Regardless of their motivations, adult learners can find many options at CSI outside of the first-time/full-time framework. A comprehensive institution, the college offers credentials from certificates and associate degrees to bachelor’s and doctoral degrees. But that array of options can mean complexity in finding the right learning pathway.

Prior to the current model, the original ARC program would set aside seats in a few “freshman level” courses for the adult students as a way to create a cohort for them. However, most adult learners either don’t need those courses or can’t take them at the days/times offered. “Small cohort scheduling does not fit the needs for most adult learners so, we needed to reinvent the model,” says Green. “They all have different needs. Putting them in a silo doesn’t work.”

Instead, Green saw the potential a concierge approach had for meeting adult learners where they are. But before you can do that, you have to know where they are. So, beginning with admissions, Green tracks them.

She coordinates with an admissions colleague dedicated to personalizing onboarding for adult learners.  “Whatever their issue is or whatever their fear is about applying or coming, we have personal interaction and assistance around that,” says Green.

In addition, CSI offers adult learners priority registrations. This allows them to confirm classes before the general population, making it easier to fit their class schedules within work and family obligations.

Green also works with a dedicated academic advisor for adult learners who helps them stay on the academic path that’s best fitted for their aspirations. She continually reprises this role of central figure across countless administrative offices so that adult learners can count on having a single point of contact for quickly addressing any concern.

The individualized approach applies to proactive communications also. Green sends personalized emails to CSI’s adult learners. In some cases, they may contain repurposed content published elsewhere at CSI. What sets them apart is how they’re oriented toward adult learners.

That’s translated to a high level of engagement, as evidenced in robust email open rates. “I've gotten positive feedback because they feel like it's not just a general institutional message, it's that personal touch that so many adults have told me they appreciate,” says Green.

She stresses the importance that has for connecting with students on academic alert. “We have a very good retention specialist, but I send out an additional message from the adult learner perspective,” she explains, adding that the approach is more communications 101 and knowing your audience than magic. “I think that works with other groups as well. When the coach is looking out for you, you're going to listen to what the coach says.”

To add another layer of outreach, Green created a Facebook page for adult learners. She views it as one more bite at the apple in the effort to connect learners with a piece of information that could make a big difference in their educational journey, like scholarships, career events, important deadlines, or even an inspirational message. She also added a private adult learner Facebook group to allow these students to communicate and share experiences.

That mindful outreach even extends to adult learners who are no longer enrolled. Green sends personalized, hard-copy letters to stopped-out students. In them, she provides a snapshot overview on what the college offers and how they can benefit from returning to school.

The letters also highlight enhancements that likely weren’t around the last time these students were on campus. For example, CSI recently added a location within walking distance of the Staten Island Ferry. That makes returning to classes more convenient for students who are commuting home from work in Manhattan.

To further engage stopped-out adult students, Green also coordinates with the advisement area on other communications that showcase at a glance what students need for completion. One example, which CSI terms a “90-credit outreach,” shows students how close they are to receiving their degree.

It isn’t just prior CSI credit that adult learners are encouraged to build on. One of the first things Green did when stepping into her role supporting adult learners was to draw on some CAEL recommendations for prior learning assessment (PLA) when guiding students. She notes that CSI boasts a strong articulation model for military credit, allowing veteran students to get up to 90 credits from their military experience. And, because many Staten Island residents are first responders, CSI has set up articulations that award up to 15 credits to learners in those professions.

Green continues her support of CSI’s adult learners amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Most already used phone or email to contact her. She says the real challenge for them has been adjusting to online offerings, especially navigating the e-learning platforms.

“The speed at which change has happened has been staggering,” says Green.

That sounds like the perfect time to have a concierge to guide you.