Photo of Chris Hagan standing in front of couch, tree, and Pathify sign

Chris Hagan reflects on the struggles he faced as an adult learner and why institutions must communicate a clear value proposition to attract this growing demographic.

From Pathify Magazine

I am studying for an anatomy exam and the phone is ringing.

I’m ignoring it. Nope, it’s my wife. I’ll take that. The groceries need to be picked up. Well, there goes the one hour I had this week to study.

My supervisor isn’t going to sympathize. She did her training in World War II, and she’s doing her doctorate now with two adult children and, by all accounts, the laziest husband in the world. You’d think that would make her sympathetic, but that’s not really how a clinical supervisor at a hospital rolls.

The good thing about this type of course is that there are plenty of adults here, looking to upgrade their professional practice from being carers and servers into the more medical part of the hospital’s life (and the enhanced paycheck and respect that represents). And we understand each other. They’ve got kids, too. And weekend shifts, and a healthy amount of panic that they’ve left all of this too late. Why did we all wait until we had kids? We should have done this while we had the time!

As recession fears grip the nation and mass layoffs seem to be a daily news story, the number of adult learners applying to institutions will only increase. While a return to higher education during a recession is a trend that has existed for decades, the student experience has the potential to be almost entirely different than previous years. 

For a start, like it or not, we’ve had to move our classes online. Institutions started to (and will continue to) advertise continuing education programs to everyone and anyone regardless of location. This rise in asynchronous learning could dramatically improve revenue for institutions, if only they properly catered to the adult student. The problem is that many deploy the same strategies they use to attract four-year traditional students and expect the same result. 

As a former adult learner, a bit of whose story you read above, I’m going to talk about what we need to do to attract adult students and how building a community can create a more attractive environment for this prospect cohort.

For Adult Learners, Higher Ed is a Product

The institution’s brand used to be a huge part of attracting prospects to ultimately attend. Your alma mater used to matter. The imprimatur was prominent. But adult students aren’t enticed by this. 

They’re looking for specific value from their certification or advanced degree. Unlike a young four-year student who attends an institution unsure of where their degree will land them, hoping to come out with a plan, a later-in-life learner has a clear picture of why they’re attending and what they want from their education. In other words, they view adult education as a product.

The average adult learner knows the career they hope to pursue following their education and probably knows what it will do to their household income. That makes their enrollment an economic gamble. They’re betting that if they spend X, they’ll be able to earn Y upon graduation. 

My wife gave birth to our first child while I studied for my first qualification (and while she studied for hers). I faced serious competition between providing for my family, enhancing my ability to get a better job, and being a father. I had no time, and my university was careless with it. I once drove 60 kilometers to attend an art class whose curriculum turned out to be “play among yourselves!” The undergraduate students didn’t mind, they went for lunch cheering that they had the day off. I raced home.

We need to align cost with value. The adult learner does not think of themselves as a malleable student, earnestly hoping to become the best they can become. They are a rational consumer of the institution’s services. And since many adult learners are footing the bill as low-income or middle-class earners, institutions need to position themselves as the best option for adults to enhance their options.

Significant Barriers to Student Support

There is no pressure or expectation for an adult learner to pursue continuing education. If anything, they will face resistance from their social networks and family to move forward with recertifying. “Why would you start all that again?” They become alienated from those peers who have not returned to study. 

In addition, they lack a built-in community that allows them to meet with other like-minded students and form real connections. Higher ed is primarily built with the campus as an anchor for the student experience. It’s designed for students who either have the means to live in dorms or don’t mind living on campus. Incidental contact with students and peers of many levels is one of the most important paths to enrichment, whether it be at the lunch table, in social clubs or simply running into a professor on the grounds.

But for adult learners, most students don’t have a connection beyond the classroom and are otherwise entirely isolated from social interaction. They don’t have time for the clubs, or to hang around on campus.

This lack of social interaction makes us doubt. We ask ourselves whether this investment is worth the challenges we face in and out of the classroom or if we’ve missed our chance. Institutions hoping to attract adult learners in the future must provide a real pathway to incidental contact in addition to in-course collaboration for students to forge authentic connections and bond with like-minded people. Relationships spell retention.

The World of Adult Learning is Interruptive

At home, adults face an interruption-based lifestyle where there’s a constant responsibility or distraction preventing them from focusing on their studies. This runs counter to taking classes in higher education, which require immersion.

Every five minutes there’s something else to do and a student can’t easily get immersed in the material they’re supposed to study. This creates a world of anxiety for students who want to show their families that the financial investment was worth it, but can’t focus for any length of time without interruption.

In addition, the technology offered to adult students isn’t conducive for use within the flow of their day.

When I was an undergraduate student, I lounged around campus waiting to sign up for classes, get my grades or seek out any other relevant information that mattered to my higher education experience. Efficiency wasn’t important – it all counted as being at school. As an adult learner, I didn’t have time to look for information.

I had work to balance and a baby to deal with. Fishing through a website or portal was the last thing on my mind, if the information was even online. 

But many institutions assume that what works for four-year students will work for adult learners and guess what? It doesn’t. Adults don’t have time for red tape. They want to spend time getting the experience necessary to practice what they’re learning professionally rather than digging for information that should be easily available.

Rethinking the Value Proposition for Adult Learners

Despite an increasing adult learning population, institutions have never been more equipped to meet their demands than the present. Through the presence of online communities, institutions can provide students with more value without raising the cost of tuition. 

Online communities connect current students with current practitioners in the field who can discuss their experience and even provide help on how the student can get through their courses. These connections can provide valuable expertise and even help students land relevant internships or jobs post-graduation. Outside of the technicalities, much of what my study gave me was contact with current, expert practitioners. I saw what they valued, and how they talked. The things they joked about, and the way they held their lives lightly. This wasn’t in a textbook; nurses get funnier the worse things get! Also, I learned that some people have mastered the art of smoking two cigarettes at the same time when their break is only three minutes long.

An online student community can be even better than a physical one, when the community is bigger than just taking the same course. For example, an institution can create a community for parents with infants or learners taking care of elderly parents. This type of connection allows students to bond over common issues that most four-year students don’t have, and to feel that the institution is helping to connect and has concern for their well-being. A student who is introduced to similar learners feels seen.

Contrast these communities with the typical options you see in continuing education programs. Students are either put into groups based on age or the class they’re taking. Neither option is adequate for adult students.

Learning in the Flow of Life

There isn’t much an institution can do to prevent an adult learner from constant interruptions. However, there are ways to make their academic experience a little easier that can and should be implemented. 

Institutions need to fight for attention from adult students by providing alerts and push notifications to their mobile device. But if it’s not carefully judged, it will become an extra stress in and of itself. We must make the information we interject into our students’ day clear, relevant and useful.

While a four-year student can spend some time looking for information on deadlines, submitting paperwork and making payments, the adult student is likely to forget these minute details. Since these learners have scarce free time and are always on the go, institutions must build in critical reminders into any continuing education program they offer.

I like to refer to this as “learning in the flow of life.” Similar to the many other apps I have helping to manage my day-to-day life, adult learners are more likely to have a positive experience with an institution if there is technology in place to make finding information smooth and seamless.

Most adult learners aren’t interested in the cap and gown experience, but that doesn’t make them any less important as a student. If anything, there’s no better time than the present to rethink the approach to adult learners. The typical gap and gown approach that made starry-eyed high school students clamor to attend your institution doesn’t have the same appeal to adults.

But they need us!

If all a learner needed was access to knowledge, every topic offered through YouTube, Udemy, Coursera and Wikipedia would displace entire courses. But that hasn’t happened. People still need the reinforcement, the structure and the support an institution can offer. Otherwise, a school is just an online content provider behind a paywall. 

It’s time to go beyond the typical learning experience and show adult students that when they write that check to an institution, they receive a clear ROI from their decision.

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