College for America Blog

Supporting Alternative Pathways to Learning for Adult Students


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Posted In: Students

Feb • 1 • 2019

supporting alternative pathways to learning for adult students

Idea in brief:
Working adult students may have some doubts about if they can complete a degree. Well designed support systems can make the difference.

In 2018, approximately 7.6 million college and university students in the United States were classified as adult learners (25 and older), many of them while working full-time. They are taking alternative pathways to learning compared to the traditional college schedule. As a result, many adult learners start out with a lot of anxiety that they aren’t college material.

If working adult students are going to succeed, universities need to put strong supports in place that are customized for their situation.

The anxieties working adult students may be feeling

Adult learners typically have been in the workforce for several years. Some may be attending college for the first time and are unfamiliar with basics like credit hours, financial aid and syllabi. Others may have made one or more attempts to complete a degree in the past and are feeling some stigma about dropping out.

Some anxieties will be centered on the subject matter itself if these students have convinced themselves they lack the necessary writing or math skills.

Lastly, most working adults are returning to college via online degree programs. That allows flexibility and more opportunities. But it can also intimidate adult learners who only have traditional classroom experiences, said Katelyn Forgue, the director of admissions at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).

“Some people are concerned that they’ve been out of school too long,” she said. “Coming into an online environment can certainly be a little bit different.”

The parallel track supporting university students

Students returning to school shouldn’t have to go it alone, and many of the anxieties described above about being “college material” can be eased with the right support.

Amy Stevens, the vice president of academic resources and technology and executive director for competency-based education at SNHU, describes a support system as a parallel track running alongside the university’s curriculum.

SNHU’s support system is designed to help students from the moment they apply for admission all the way through graduation and beyond. Webinars are a common resource, as are outreach phone calls from admissions staff, academic advisors and alumni relations.

Offering help proactively is a critical part of that service, said Stevens. “We know raising your hand for help is a scary thing to do. We want you to take risks in your learning, but we want you to feel supported in your path to get there.”

Part of something bigger

In a recent interview for a Harvard Business School podcast, SNHU president Paul LeBlanc described how the advising function makes a difference in an online program. The community of a residential college gives students everyday signals that “you matter,” which helps students persist, but that doesn’t happen automatically online.

In a well-designed online program, LeBlanc said, “The advisor in many ways is the critical piece that says, ‘You matter.’ They know what you’re struggling with. They know where you’re succeeding. They’re checking on you.”

At the SNHU graduation every year, thousands of online students fly in from around the country, said LeBlanc, “and the most emotional moments are when people who have worked with this advisor for 2, 3, 5, 6 years meet for the first time physically. Because they know about each other’s kids. Their families.”

“We may think, ‘Is that really the job of the advisor?’ That’s exactly the job of an advisor. They need to make sure you’re in the right course. But they need to make sure you feel part of something bigger than yourself.”

Finding new opportunities through online degrees

When an adult learner is considering going back to school, said Forgue, there’s almost always an important reason behind it. Some have hit a roadblock in their career, whether in terms of pay or job potential. Some feel stuck on a certain path because they lack a credential. To others, going back to school fulfills a life goal or dream.

When Forgue and her team sense that a student may be hesitant about heading back to school, they try to get to the root of what getting that degree will mean to them.

“We’re really looking to uncover that spark and that motivation,” she said. “When you do get your degree, what is your life going to look like? How is it going to impact you?”

For Heather Foster, a student in College for America’s healthcare management program, getting her degree meant the ability to advance within her company and do more of the work she loves.

Another College for America student, John Guy, was inspired to work on his associate degree to keep up to date on the technology in his field and to be the first person in his family to earn a college degree.

Supporting alternative pathways to learning

Despite the opportunities presented by getting a degree, said Forgue, it’s common for students to feel nervous, particularly if they have been out of school for a long time.

From the admissions side, her team lets prospective students know that they have people to talk to.

“Just because it’s online doesn’t mean you’re off on an island by yourself,” said Forgue. “You have people here to help troubleshoot and match resources to your needs.”

New students in the program receive support from week one. Stevens and her team do everything from connecting students with disabilities to accessible technology resources, to coaching study skills, to demystifying the language around college, including how to understand the syllabus or read a rubric. The first step is always to meet students where they are.

“We’re not just expecting students to jump in and immediately know what do to,” she said. “We put a lot of effort into making sure that when a student arrives we can help them get up to the level where they can be successful.”

Community is the biggest asset

The most successful working adult students aren’t the ones with the best writing skills, the best math skills or who are good at taking tests. They are the ones who have a platform of solid support, said Stevens.

“I think there’s a misunderstanding that the only people who seek support are the ones who are struggling,” she said. “The reality is that successful students seek support; that’s a consistent theme we see with all our students.”

Stevens recommended managers and leaders in organizations focus on how they can offer support to employees who may be considering going back to school. That could be anything from offering flextime at work to giving feedback on a paper or helping them reality test some of the real-world projects they may be working on.

“If a student thinks they have to do this alone, they may be making it harder than it needs be,” said Stevens. “Our employer partners share the goal with us of making sure students recognize that the community around them is going to be one of their biggest assets.”

Contact us to learn more about how SNHU works with employers to support alternative pathways to learning for working adult students.

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Jessie Kwak is a freelance writer and novelist living in Portland, Oregon.