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CAEL Pathways Blog

How does your institution attract and engage adult learners?

By Dr Valerie Delleville

Adult learners are not a population to ignore: there are nearly 37 million of them in the U.S. with some college and no degree. This total doesnt even consider the millions of adult learners who are seeking out first time enrollment in post-secondary programs. When compared to the expected 2019 high school graduation population of 3.6 million, it becomes obvious why adult learners are so critical to any institutions sustainability.

For the third consecutive year, American colleges and universities are witnessing declines in overall enrollment, with the biggest loss being among adult student populations. Unfortunately, these decreases in students who are 24 years or older have become steeper over the past three years:

  • 2017-2018 decline of -4.0%
  • 2016-2017 decline of -3.6%
  • 2015-2016 decline of -3.1%

Across all higher education sectors (for-profit, non-profit, public two-year, and public four-year categories), for-profit institutions have been hit the hardest, with a -6.8% decline. Four-year non-profit institutions are 2018s winner in minimizing their losses this year at -1.8%. These figures are daunting, and any continual drop in enrollment will serve as a catalyst to dire circumstances, up to and including closing. A national, coast-coast trend of institutions shutting down across the country includes Marylhurst, Mt. Ida College and various Chicago campuses of the Art Institute. The declines in both new and continuing enrollment are bringing many post-secondary institutions to the brink of closure.

Then, there is the phenomenon of how when the economy is growing, adults tend to stop going back to school. It is after all human nature to avoid all the extra effort of continuing education when things are going well. When the great recession hit ten years ago, enrollments grew by 12% from 2007-2008. Those enrollment growth rates are long gone, and higher education must adapt with economic ebbs and flows.

Here are some innovations CAEL has seen across the U.S.

  • Lumina has awarded multi-year grants to five states that are addressing talent development through clear financial commitment to adult learners via the Adult Promise
  • Texas launched its 60x30 program, where they aim for 60% of Texans to have a post-secondary credential by 2030
  • Free community college programs across the U.S.
  • Adult re-engagement campaigns like TN Reconnect

If you arent part of one of these initiatives, no need to worry. Perhaps the most straightforward approach we can take is to change the way we approach attracting and retaining adult learners at every college and university. CAEL offers training and solutions on optimizing adult student enrollment management, based from its Ten Principles for Effectively Serving Adults. Our newly developed course helps enrollment management better understand the engagement techniques and resources that adults need to successfully enroll, persist, and graduate.

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