In a recent post, I described some of the barriers facing adult learners, who are too often marginalized by popular culture and often the colleges and universities they attend, despite comprising the majority of degree recipients.So what are the solutions?The first fix is to change the language we use to describe adult learners. The phrase “non-traditional student” defines adult learners by negation and fails to take into account that adult learners work (usually full-time), pay taxes, raise families, vote and otherwise take part in their communities. That sounds pretty traditional to me.Similarly, as mentioned last week, television, movies and marketing materials related to higher education omit adult learners — 54 percent of all degree recipients — from the picture altogether. Do a Google image search for “college student” and see what results are returned. The picture accompanying this post is what I found.
Popular culture isn’t the only negative influence on adult learners. The National Center for Education Statistics is supposed to track all education trends in this country, but it focuses dominantly on first-time, full-time college students. It has very little data about adult learners, even though they are the majority sector of higher education enrollment, because they don’t attend college right after high school and typically don’t attend full-time. The prevailing mindset seems to be that they’re too difficult to count, so why bother counting them? It is very possible there is a linkage between the failure to count adult learners, and their lack of eligibility to participate in the federal student loan program if they attend less than half-time. We need to count adult learners and show them in our materials. We need to show them at work, with their families and in volunteer service in their communities, making it clear that millions of adults manage to attend college part-time and they matter.Universities themselves can do more to make adult learners feel like valued members of the campus community by scheduling classes, guest lectures and social activities during times when those students tend to be available. We then must make a point to invite them to those activities. The world will not stop turning if a 19-year-old and a 58-year-old show up to the same dance, concert or art exhibition.At Lesley, our Center for the Adult Learner boasts a generous transfer credit policy that encourages adult learners who suspended their pursuit of a four-year degree years ago to resume their studies and earn a bachelor’s degree. All schools should stop viewing credits earned in the past as expired milk. What’s more, universities and colleges should be sure to offer a mechanism to parlay college-level learning gained through professional experience into credits toward a degree.Lesley and other forward-thinking universities are also beginning to maximize the potential of online learning to make course schedules more flexible and degrees more attainable when the adult can customize the learning time around their other responsibilities.Adult learners add as much to our classes and campus environments as they do for their families and communities. If we want more young people to aspire to succeed in college, we should get their parents enrolled now and have them be college-going role models for their kids. As one college-going mother told me, “My three girls (ages 8, 11 and 13) don’t talk about IF they will go to college, but WHERE they will go to college.”Universities and colleges of all sizes, and all of us, need to change how we communicate about adult learners and the way we deliver services. If we can remove these barriers and help adult learners feel more welcome at our colleges and universities, we will have created a better, more mature learning culture that will benefit all students.