Persistence and graduation rates among returning adult college students has become an issue of increased importance in the higher education landscape. Professor Pat Keith has researched the potential barriers these “nontraditional” student face and their use of academic and social services many colleges and universities provide in an attempt to increase the success experienced by this increasing demographic in higher education.
Keith (2007) quotes the work of Bundy and Smith when stating, “Four year colleges and universities have especially been criticized for not providing services that might retain nontraditional students” (p. 1123). The researcher goes on to cite the work of Mercer who identified three types of barriers many adult students face when pursing higher education.
Situational barriers include family commitments and employment status which have the potential to take time away from the higher education experience.
Dispositional barriers refer to the adjustment issues and personal worries many adult students have when considering whether they have the skills to fit with younger students.
Institutional barriers include inconvenient class time, lack of appropriate office hours of critical university services, and lack of opportunity to become engaged in relevant experiences outside of the classroom.
Promising practices within the classroom exist to support the needs of nontraditional students; however, more thought and study should be given to how out of class services can holistically support the experience of returning adult students both on campus and in their home environments. With the wealth of research suggesting the positive connections between student engagement and educational attainment, it seems college and university personnel should determine how to change existing structures to provide these experiences and services to returning adult students as a means to increase their chances of success.
As a student engagement professional, I find that often our involvement experiences run the risk of being inaccessible for returning adult students who manage multiple life roles. In our discussions within my department about this, we came up with a few strategies that seem to have helped increase the availability of involvement opportunities for all students.
- We discontinued our traditional distinguished lecture series. While this program is a tried and true component of most co-curricular program models, most speaking events occur in the evenings and are “one shot” programs that you have to attend at a specific time in order to experience. Additionally, most speakers will prohibit the rebroadcast of their performance. We, along with plenty of other departments like ours, have paid thousands of dollars to bring in wonderful speakers who often speak to a largely homogeneous crowd and then are never heard from again. We have made a transition to presenting TED style speaking experiences that can be filmed and made available for students at their convenience. In our first experiment with this delivery method, we used web analytics and found not only many of our students watching online, but people all over our region, state, and even nationally checking out our videos.
- We have beefed up our use of student engagement technology with the help of our friends at OrgSync! We’ve used OrgSync’s platform to deliver student organization training and a student organization experience for students who may not often be on campus. While being a virtual member of a student organization may prevent participation in some activities and events, the use of video, message boards, and other tools have provided a way to interact. Students are able to form small groups, work on projects virtually, and report back to the group without having to meet face to face. We’ve also provided tools to help returning adult students navigate the technology using YouTube videos. Who doesn’t like watching YouTube videos!
- We stopped making the assumption that returning adult students wouldn’t be interested in getting involved or working in our office. We have seen an increase in returning adult students applying for our student leadership positions in our office. Many of our returning adult student staff members have told us our intentional efforts to recruit them made a difference and they have enjoyed the environment we have created that celebrates the life experiences of all of our student staff members. Our efforts and experiences have given us a high level of “street cred” among our returning adult students which has helped to increase engagement. Word of mouth is still our #1 marketing strategy. We didn’t spend more money or discover any big secret. We were just bold enough to change our typical structures to become more inclusive.
Expanding our reach to under served audiences like returning adult students will ensure student affairs continues to be viewed as a critical partner in helping all students succeed during college and after graduation.
This article was originally posted, with citations, here.