According to the Lumina Foundation, of all undergraduate college students, 38 percent are older than age 25, 58 percent work, and 26 percent are also raising children. Because of financial pressures and competing obligations, adult learners are much less likely to complete their education. While older and more mature than the “traditional” college student just out of high school, these students must deal with pressures that can be daunting to even the most motivated student.

In order to promote student success and student engagement, colleges must understand their needs and make serving those needs a fundamental part of their purpose. Consider these teaching tips for students from nontraditional backgrounds.

Nontraditional students

In the Fall 2010 issue of Public Purpose magazine, Stephen G. Pelletier examined, “Success for Adult Students” by gathering research from a number of sources. He began with a definition of the nontraditional student, who begins college at age 25 or older. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) nontraditional students meet several criteria.

  • Delayed enrollment into postsecondary education
  • Attends college part-time
  • Works full-time
  • Is financially independent for financial aid purposes
  • Has dependents other than spouse

The Lumina Foundation is an independent, private foundation committed to increasing the proportion of Americans with degrees, certificates, and other high-quality credentials. Lumina president Jamie Merisotis knows that for the older student, life obligations often come first.

“The price that you pay for that is that it takes much longer to get the credential. One thing that we know very well is that the longer it takes, the less likely it is for people to actually achieve that credential,” Merisotis said.

Understanding adult learners

You can help your adult students by being understanding, accessible, and supportive. Although they are older and more mature, the adult student comes to campus with certain fears and misgivings about requirements and procedures. Even something as simple as scheduling a visit with a counselor or submitting enrollment paperwork can be a major undertaking when balancing work, school, and family.

Despite their many accomplishments outside of the classroom, adult learners need encouragement and support in gaining their academic focus. In their book, Your Guide to College Success: Strategies for Achieving Your Goals, Seventh Edition, John W. Santrock and Jane S. Halonen presented a six-step model that focuses students on achievable goals.

The textbook specifically addresses students’ genuine interest in, and need for, information and guidance on such topics as relationships, money management, plagiarism, sexual behavior, substance abuse, test taking, editing and grammar, stress, diet and exercise, career planning, and the work-life balance. Santrock and Halonen offered these strategies to help returning students manage their new responsibilities:

  • “Evaluate your support system.” It helps when family is supportive and willing to lend a hand at home.
  • “Make new friends.” Get to know your fellow students, especially the older ones as they know what you’re going through.
  • “Get involved in campus life.” Campus groups and organizations have a lot to offer.
  • “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.” Learn about campus support services such as health, counseling, and tutoring. (Santrock and Halonen, 7)

Adult learners will benefit from this text by completing exercises designed to help them know their learning styles, set goals, develop study skills, and more. The text also highlights the experiences of college students who represent different groups including millennials, international students, and returning students.

What are your top suggestions for helping college students manage their time pressures? Share your ideas in the comments.

Reference:  Santrock, John W; Jane S. Halonen. 2013. Your Guide to College Success: Strategies for Achieving Your Goals, 7th Edition. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.