What “Persistence and Retention” Means for Adult Learners

In an era when declining enrollment looms large, and the demographics of higher education are undergoing an unprecedented shift. Colleges and universities are clamoring to attract so-called “nontraditional students.” But, while institutions are quick to market more flexible pathways to a degree, many still expect their adult, parent, and working learners — who are rapidly becoming the new normal on college campuses and often face unique barriers to degree completion — to adapt to a model that was built around the archetypal, 18-year-old college freshman. 

To fully harness the talents and potential of the fastest-growing student segment in higher education, colleges will have to redesign themselves in ways that recognize and honor adult students’ needs. 

Career is at the Core

To start, adults are often in school for different reasons than traditional-age students.  While 18-year-olds may go to college to discover their passion, build identity, to meet societal expectations, and perhaps enter a career, adults tend to return to college for one reason—to advance their careers.

Institutions can more tightly link adults’ courses of study with career outcomes by partnering with employers and industry leaders to establish learning goals, create work-based learning opportunities, and ensure alignment between what students are learning and the skills they need to advance their career after graduation.

Flexible Pathways Promote Success

Adult learners also have many responsibilities outside of collegiate studies, meaning they require a greater degree of flexibility from their courses and instructors. 

Nearly 5 million college students are parents. As average childcare costs have risen to $9,000 per child per year, the number of childcare centers on college campuses has fallen, leaving student-parents with few options. More than half of student-parents do not earn a degree within six years, likely as a result of balancing competing responsibilities.

The majority of adult learners also work while in college, many of them full time. One study from the National Center for Education Statistics found that more than 80 percent of adult learners said they worked while enrolled. Fifty-six percent of adult learners said they viewed themselves as workers first and students second.  

To accept and respect the conflicting responsibilities of adult learners, institutions should explore online and hybrid learning models that can grant students greater freedom in when, where, and how they participate in a course. They should create flexible schedules, so time conflicts do not become insurmountable barriers to staying enrolled. And they should hire advisors and coaches who can help adult students learn to negotiate the various demands competing for their time, energery, and attention. 

Curb Costs

Of course, cost is a primary barrier for many adult learners. Financial aid and scholarships are limited for adults, so finding innovative ways to keep the cost of their education low is key. 

One promising practice is the use of open educational resources — free digital textbooks or other media — that can help with the costs of expensive textbooks. A typical student spends about $1,200 on books and academic supplies every year, and more than half of all college students say they cannot afford required materials. Research has shown, however, that students who take advantage of open educational resources can save as much as $120 per course.

The number of adult learners is only going to increase in the years to come. Instead of dismissing adult learners as a fringe population, it’s time for higher education to recognize and embrace the unbridled potential of this growing population.