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Overcoming Barriers for Adult Learners

As a former college advisor, I worked tirelessly to help high school students plan, apply, and pay for college. This work excited me because I knew the impact a college education would have on their lives and their families lives for generations to come. While doing this work, I couldn’t help but notice how many of them would be first-generation college students. While we celebrated the students for taking this big step, I always wondered about the adults they lived with. Did those adults ever aspire to attend college? Was a past hope of a college education dashed? Were they waiting on the right time to pursue an education-related goal? 

Barriers to Education
During countless conversations with parents, guardians, and adult community members, I discovered that many of them had similar stories related to education. They either once desired to attend college or had earned some college credits — many still thought they might someday attend college. When asked about what prevented them from completing their educational goals in the past or what is preventing them in the present, some common barriers that arose were: 

  • Family/work obligations 
  • Limited financial resources
  • Lack of time 
  • Lack of clarity on academic and career goal setting
  • Doubt of academic ability 

As CAEL’s research has found, these barriers are common to many adult learners. The desire to create a better future for themselves and their families may exist, but these barriers appear unsurmountable. The parents I connected with also brought up feelings of shame and defeat related to their educational aspirations, which was a motivating factor for them to push their children to become college educated. 

Institutions of higher education can respond to and help adult learners overcome barriers to education by adhering to the Adult Learner Leadership for Institutional Effectiveness (ALLIES) Framework. Within this framework, institutions are able to utilize data-driven planning to create academic programs for adults, equip their organization to receive adult learners, and create an inclusive student experience for adult learners to thrive. 

The Importance of Support
For many of the aspiring adult learners I connected with in my work, my willingness to help them embark upon their educational journey was incredibly impactful. I remember helping an adult learner complete a FAFSA, and she was overcome with emotion when she discovered she was Pell Grant eligible. While it may be easy to assume that an adult can figure out how to complete an application or be able to navigate college business offices, it is important to realize this experience may be new to them and they require a bit more guidance. Having clear information on financial resources, academic advising, information on credit for prior learning,  adult-centered orientation programs, and access to technical support is necessary for adult learners to feel both welcomed and empowered to embark upon this important step in their journey.

In addition to the support that institutions are able to provide directly, it is important for there to be a strong referral network for adult learners to assist them with challenges that may arise outside of the classroom. Resources related to housing, childcare, food insecurity, and financial needs may alleviate stress for adult learners as they are navigating their academic programs. 

Once a never-enrolled adult makes the decision to work toward an educational goal, it is critical to surround them with as many resources and support as possible. This will help them build self-efficacy and increase their likelihood of completing their academic program. This could create incredible opportunities for these adult learners in the future and allow them to actualize the version of themselves they always dreamed about. 

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