Adult learners consistently have the lowest persistence and first-year retention rates of any student age group, with rates hovering around 50% in most recent years. While students over age 24 have diverse reasons for dropping out of school, the group as a whole requires different support than traditional college students to be able to complete a degree program. Let’s look at the motivational and support factors that improve retention and persistence for adult learners.
- Single point of contact
Adults returning to school have busy lives and don’t have time to develop relationships with multiple departments to re-enter school, register for classes, get advising help, and access financial aid. A reentry concierge can help students navigate getting settled into their program, and personalized advising can help students choose the best classes for their individual needs based on the credits they can apply from previous college courses.
- Flexibility in Applying Prior Learning Credits
The goal of completing a degree is supported best by schools that offer many different transfer credit options, with prior college credits, prior learning assessments, and credit by exam programs applying towards degree requirements. Completion Colleges are uniquely situated to provide these services, but more universities are expanding their programs to help adult learners finish a degree. The more credits a student can apply, the shorter their path to the degree, with the underlying motivation of feeling that the school and program value their life experience. Offering generalized or “parachute” degree programs are one strategy to help returning students by crediting courses from a more specific degree program towards the more general degree type.
- Peer Interactions
Although adult learners don’t have much time to spend on campus or online learning, they benefit greatly from the connections with peers that help them stay motivated, provide social ties, and give them a feeling of inclusion in the community. Strategies for increased peer interaction include cohort model programs, virtual social and study group programming, and family-friendly campus events.
- Supports Specific to Their Needs
Diverse groups of nontraditional students have different needs in their college completion efforts. The flexibility of online or evening courses, on-campus childcare services, or satellite campus locations can be ways to make learning more convenient—or possible—for learners with a variety of different needs. Military students might need compressed courses to finish before unpredictable deployments, employed adults may benefit from satellite classes in downtown locations, and those with small children may benefit from childcare. Financial supports, connections to social services, and after-hours access to necessary departments and services can help adults persist in their degree while managing their complex lives.
- Encourage Self-Efficacy
Self-efficacy is the belief that students have in their ability to achieve or perform in a specific realm. Adult students often don’t fully believe in their competence at learning. Therefore, helping students set reasonable goals and reframe their beliefs about their capabilities supports students’ sense of control over their learning. Careful constructive feedback is crucial to avoid discouraging students. Giving students choices in how or when they complete assignments while providing teacher support will encourage autonomy. Students who enjoy and feel a sense of accomplishment in their education will naturally have higher persistence rates.
Feeling respected is much more important to adult students than to traditional students. Adults come to school with more extensive life experience and often hold positions of responsibility in their personal or work lives. Nontraditional learners expect to be treated with respect. Sharing their knowledge and perspective can help them feel valued in the classroom. They have also taken time out of their busy lives to be in school, and their time is a valuable commodity. Being brushed aside or having their time wasted does not go over well. By respecting learners, staff and faculty can develop stronger bonds of collaboration with students to motivate them to continue their programs.
- Provide Exploratory and Deep Learning Opportunities
Learning through exploration and inquiry is particularly inspiring for adults. Adults are also slower to learn rote facts, and therefore may need more time than their younger peers to absorb and memorize information. Yet adults have more capacity for deep understanding and therefore enjoy challenges. Courses and programs targeted to nontraditional students can be designed with learning and motivational differences in mind.