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4 Ways You Can Adapt to Meet the Needs of Non-Traditional Learners

Adult students are increasing in numbers across American campuses. They are changing the playing field of higher education, bringing a whole new set of expectations to the forefront. In order for institutions to attract and retain these students in the long run, administrators must begin to adapt their services to support this new breed of student.

Here are four avenues institutions should explore in order to effectively meet the needs of their non-traditional learners:

1. Scheduling and Delivery Format

"Class availability and scheduling is one key obstacle for adults who want to continue their education. When morning and afternoon classes are ruled out, often, there is not much choice left."
– Asta Turner, Student, Pfeiffer University

Non-traditional students don’t have the same flexibility in their schedules as their traditional-aged peers. Most hold day jobs and live off campus. Many have dependents. For institutions, this means that everything from course scheduling to office hours need to be configured with the adult student in mind. Leading institutions are using technology to extend their reach so that students can do everything from learning from and communicating with professors to ordering transcripts or paying fees on their own schedule and often from their own homes. While it is important for institutions to provide online delivery options that work with the schedules of non-traditional learners, they must ensure that quality is not affected and that students receive the same level of service as they would on campus.

2. Flexible approaches to credentialing

"I don’t want to stick around college forever. I was in the Navy for six years and I want to get back into the job market… I wish it was more streamlined, that there was better transition from the credits from the Navy to higher education."
- Nathan Sable, Student, The George Washington University

The primary purpose of most adult learners when returning to the classroom is to gain new skills and relevant credentials that will help them succeed in the workforce. It is therefore imperative that institutions implement more flexible models of credentialing so that students can complete their education and begin putting it to use as effectively as possible. Institutions should consider greater acceptance of prior learning or transfer credits as well as short-term programs that give students precise skills they can use in the workplace. Many schools offer thriving certificate programs that give working adults a means of gaining a useful set of skills, as well as a credential, without having to go through the entire degree process.

3. Dedicated Support

"Consideration of what customer service looks like for certain student populations is really an important part of what customers and students expect. If an institution doesn’t understand and cannot relate directly to the types of students they have, it will be very difficult for them to be able to succeed in an economy that will be driven more by the customer than by the government."
– Becky Takeda-Tinker, resident, Colorado State University – Global Campus

Adult learners require a more personalized experience than students who are freshly out of high school. Institutions trying to gain footage in this marketplace must have a dedicated and knowledgeable team on hand to deal with these specific needs. As non-traditional students continue to demand a high level of service from their institutions, institutions must rethink how they offer service to adult students. Behind-the scenes administrative processes and front-line support need to be reformatted to ensure institutions provide non-traditional students with customer service that exceeds their expectations.

4. Targeted Marketing

"I found Penn State on my own; it wasn’t like they reached out to me at a career fair or a school fair and [I] heard about their extra activities for adult learners or their programs for adult learners. I think they can probably do a better job at targeting adult learners who are interested in going back to school."
– James Osborn, Student, Penn State University

Traditional marketing efforts typically focus on recruiting students who are applying straight out of high school. These techniques do not appeal to older students who have different needs from their institution. With the enrollment of non-traditional students becoming an institutional priority, administrators must also target their marketing efforts towards this population and highlight areas that make their institution relevant to adult learners.   Not all non-traditional students are looking for the same thing, and it is important to gather data to be sure that the right marketing techniques are aimed at the right students.

Institutions can use a variety of methods to increase non-traditional student enrollment and retention. Once institutions customize their services to the specific needs of adult learners, they stand to succeed in this increasingly competitive market.


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Last updated: February 1, 2021


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