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CAEL Pathways Blog

What Adult Learners Say You Can Do To Support Their Success

Last May, CAEL announced plans for a comprehensive Framework for serving adult learners. The Framework will clarify best practices for adult learner success. It will also refine CAEL's landmark 10 Principles for Effectively Serving Adult Learners. The Principles guide not only CAEL's program support services but adult learning policy at the many postsecondary institutions and state systems that engage them.

To develop the Framework, CAEL needed to conduct a breadth of research befitting its scope, including an adult learning literature review. A major tranche of Framework data also comes from 10 top-performing higher ed and nontraditional education/training providers. CAEL completed in-depth questionnaires and focus group interviews at six of these institutions. Adult learners who had enrolled there contributed feedback.

"It's part of CAEL's philosophy that we prioritize collecting student voices wherever possible," said Barry Nickerson, senior director of higher education initiatives for CAEL. "Hearing firsthand from students is the best evidence that something is, or is not, working."

Barry completed the student interviews in the fall. He has shared high-level findings at CAEL's annual conference and other recent events. With a diverse makeup, the group offered researchers a rich mix of experiences, said Barry. Participants included parents, minoritized individuals, and students with military backgrounds. Most of the adult learners were still enrolled, but a few had recently graduated. 

The researchers organized feedback along core themes. They delineated the themes based on what the adult learners told them was most important to their success. Adult learners want institutions to facilitate their sense of agency and control over their future. They also look to institutions to empower them to persevere. And they expect programs to lead to a goal.

Easing Transitions

One striking thing that emerged from the interviews was that some adult learners had left previous institutions to attend an adult-friendly school. Often, it wasn't just their own experiences that inspired them. "One of the big learnings from this is that adult learners connect with each other," said Barry. "They tend to gravitate toward others who have shared characteristics, especially shared isolated characteristics." These could be parenthood, military service, or full-time work, qualities that often set adult learners apart from their traditional classmates.

These informal networks suggest it is wise to reconsider the stereotype of the isolated adult student. They represent an organic community of support, one that can complement a holistic-minded institution's own approach to how it supports adults -- or inspire students to leave one that doesn't.

Such support typically begins with easing the enrollment, registration, and onboarding processes. Discussions with both students and staff made it clear that being proactive was key. "It really comes down to that upfront connection and breaking the anonymity and the solitude, even for the distance learners," said Barry. 

Connecting with students as they transition to a program sets the stage for long-term success. Early engagement drove higher persistence among adult learners in the study.

Credit for prior learning (CPL) can go a long way to academic empowerment. (See section below.) But institutions need to ensure that in removing one barrier, they aren't creating another. One student in the group had twenty years' work experience as a project manager. Even though she had earned and regularly renewed her certified project manager professional certificate, she found the portfolio process for the introductory project management course cumbersome. 

"She told us it was more work to create and submit a portfolio for her certificate than it would have been to sit through the class and get the easy A," recalled Barry. On top of that, the student felt that professors in related introductory courses were harder on her because of her experience. The student ended up eschewing several other CPL opportunities.

Her institution could have accelerated this process by proactively recognizing an industry-validated certification, likely at no cost to it. A formal connection to a degree program would validate it as college-level learning. In turn, a certificate with dual workplace and classroom uses encourages workers who may not be ready to enroll today to retain college completion among their goals.

Academic Empowerment

Barry describes the heart of academic empowerment as "non-punitive flexibility." Like almost all adult learners, the interviewees had competing and concurrent demands to balance. They often had to triage their time. 

Institutions need to be mindful of that and consider where college may fall on students' lists of priorities, said Barry. Yet schools are often built under the assumption that school is the top priority for all learners, he noted.

A handful of bad actors even embrace a hazing role. "They think that the first or second year should weed out students who aren't college material," said Barry. "But everyone goes to school with a goal. Everyone who drops out is giving up on a dream. But we are not in the business of crushing dreams in higher education. We are in the business of empowering students to get to where they want to go."

One example of non-punitive flexibility that adult learners appreciated was an automatic withdrawal policy for students who don't attend class in the first two weeks. "The automated outreach culminates in a personal phone call from advisors to see how they can get students back on track," said Barry. That helps students avoid withdrawals on their transcripts, which has financial aid implications. And it opens up space for others who couldn't find a spot in the class.

Being able to progress at their own pace was also important to the interviewed students. Instead of being penalized for not remaining within a fixed cohort, students who were free to take time off without fees were able to better manage work and family responsibilities.

Despite the aforementioned obstacle in completing portfolios, CPL was important to academic empowerment. Several students reported gaining valuable experience through professional and community-based work. The experiential learning ranged from emergency licensure opportunities to volunteer work to traditional workplace activities. "They were able to essentially stack their program with practica," said Barry. 

The time- and money-saving benefits of CPL are well documented. But experiential learning also creates a halo effect that can enrich the learning environment. "One of our studied programs serves paraeducators who are already in the classroom," said Barry, describing an education program. "Now they're practicing their teaching skills in the classroom with students with whom they're already working. They're able to bring that reflection back to the college classroom, and to say, 'I work with these students with special needs, and here are the strategies that I use that I learned in class.' They're not just doing their homework, they're doing real-world work."

Career Connections

It will come as no surprise that students expected programs to offer work-relevant courses and credentials. However, it is noteworthy that even students who had no specific career goals shared this sentiment.

"If they weren't personally looking for a career goal or advancement, they wanted to know that the degree still led to one so that they had that option," said Barry. "'It still mattered that what they were learning was relevant to the world. They didn't want to take theory for the sake of theory."

Interviewees also said it was important that adult learners be represented among mentors. That preference was present across perspectives. 

"Those who were at the tail end or had just finished, they loved being able to have opportunities to go back and say, 'I was an adult learner, like you, I just went through this experience, I was successful," said Barry. "And those mentored or tutored by recent graduate adult learners also loved that experience. They felt that there was a real connection made there."

This was especially powerful for historically underrepresented students, said Barry. "For students who were neurodiverse, non-white, or non-cisgender, or non-heterosexual, they said, 'I'm one of the few in the field, and now I'm a mentor. And I'm seeing students like me.' And there's no dollar amount you can put on that experience."

Student Support and Equity

Interviewees stressed that student support shouldn't be one-size-fits-all. In highlighting their differing needs, the students demonstrated a clear consensus: generic support isn't very supportive. 

"You can't offer support in a vacuum and expect it to work for all learners," said Barry. Institutions, he added, need to accept that they cannot always address the problem.

That often means integrating external sources, or at least being a willing conduit to them. Barry cited the example of a student who is the parent of an autistic child. Offering a generic communication about the campus child care center, where staff are not qualified to work with autistic children, is a missed opportunity. 

"You have to listen to adult learners and figure out what they really need," he said. "And when that happens, they're really grateful for it. You may not be able to provide care on-campus for that child, but what you can do is help the parent with navigating how to find and select appropriate, affordable, trustworthy care, how to make those connections."

But even as institutions strive to serve adult learners facing myriad challenges, it's important to avoid patronizing them. "A mistake that we tend to make in higher education is treating adult learners as a monolith. Adult learners are diverse, and they include first-generation students, veterans, and underrepresented learners across race, class, and gender. They too are looking for support and solidarity. There's also the community building, there's the networking, and it's being able to connect at that different level to talk about their work, family, and life experiences, while the traditional student is speculating about work experiences and family experiences that they may have in the future.

"That's really one of the big shifts, in terms of what these institutions do. They facilitate those multiple conversations, where adult learners can reflect back and make sense of what they're learning, not just in terms of what they will do and what they expect to do in the future, but also what they already know and what they've learned through life experience."

At the same time, adult learners have an urgent need to "learn how to learn." "It's the competency to navigate this convoluted world of higher education," said Barry. 

That ability can set up a pay-it-forward cycle of success. "Successfully navigating higher education really matters to them, so that they can teach their kids how to go to college, so that they can teach their relatives, their mentees, within their community organizations, their churches, and so on," he said. 

"Maybe they're feeling rusty, but they feel confident that in the future, if they want to return to higher education, to change careers or gain a new skill, that they know how to do so successfully. They know how to learn, they know how to study for an exam, they know how to ask for and find support, they know how to register for a course, they know how to read an academic pathway. These skills are really important to them, because they will pass it on to others."


No consideration of student success factors would be complete without the financial aspects of postsecondary education. During their interviews, the adult learners made it clear that the impact of scholarships transcends their face value.

"For those adults who are paying for college, even small scholarships make a big difference," said Barry. "They do a lot for motivation and psyche. Every adult who had some sort of scholarship, even if it was minimal, was so grateful for that and felt that it really validated their academic achievements."

Short of scholarships, students pointed to two other meaningful ways institutions could help quell concerns about costs. "Financial aid advisors can make a huge difference," said Barry. "Students really appreciate when their school offers help with the FAFSA." 

Such assistance should be distinct from the typical information provided to parents of traditional college students. Useful information includes tax implications such as deductions and credits related to education benefits, loans, and tuition payments.

The third major takeaway about affordability ties into the idea of non-punitive flexibility. Just as college schedules don't always fall in line with work and children's school schedules, fee schedules aren't synced with student income. 

"A lot of payment schedules are arbitrary," said Barry. "They come with fees -- payment plan fees, processing fees, and so on." 

Ultimately, Barry says, this can amount to a poor tax -- one that may not even enrich the institutions that insist on levying them. He praised the institutions in the study group that eliminated these fees and implemented flexible payment schedules. "If people are stopping out because of them and you're losing tuition income, at some point, it's being penny wise and pound foolish," he said.

Next Steps

Barry continues to work with fellow researchers from Northeastern University's Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy and other project partners. They expect to publish their complete findings and recommendations in the spring. 

The Framework project is funded through grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Charles Koch Foundation with matching grants from Strada Education Network.



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