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What the Experts Have to Say About Non-Traditional Students

Tuesday, April 11, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Steven Frye, AAACE President
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HIGHER EDUCATION Leaders in the field of continuing education gather to discuss common myths (and their hopes) about non-traditional students.

Steven B. Frye, Ph.D.
President, Association for Adult and Continuing Education

“I think the biggest misconception about adult learners from the institutional side is that they can do it all on their own.”

What do you think are the top 3 character traits of an adult learner?

Tenacity. I have witnessed adult students doing amazing things to be successful in their university classes. I had one non-traditional student who was unable to attend my 4-hour night class because she had been released from the hospital and was physically unable to attend. She actually went to a local fast-food restaurant (she did not have internet access at her home) and interacted with the class via Skype. Afterwards, she actually returned to the Emergency Room.

Desire to learn and improve.

Often adult learners “get” the concept that higher learning is actually about learning, not just about earning a grade. They often do not settle for “just good enough” because they understand the value of what they are investing in, and they take pride in the things they are producing.
Applying learning to life.
The life-experiences of adult learners add a significant amount to the learning environment. Adult learners have enough life experience to recognize the direct applications of higher learning to life and work. When they see classroom learning that applies to life and work, this is often met with amazing levels of enthusiasm and engagement. 

What piece of advice would you give and adult thinking about going back to school or finish their degree?
One of our graduates returned to school and finished his degree at 71 said many times that the hardest part of starting back to school is actually just starting. The lack of confidence, fears of inadequacy and worries over the many potential roadblocks often stop the potential student before the process even gets started. If a potential student sees the value and possibilities in completing his/her education, take the step and apply. Look for programs that can match with your schedule and learning preferences.

Another piece of advice for adult learners is to realize that you are an asset to the higher education system. The number of high school graduates has been in decline for a few years and will not rebound until the 2020s. States with goals to raise the number of adults with a degree or certificate know they need adult students to reach these goals. In states like Tennessee, state universities receive rewards in state funding for success with adult students. Classrooms (face-to-face and online) benefit from your life experiences and your educational work ethic.

Avoid massive debt.
Think through the cost versus benefits of completing the degree program. Seek out scholarships and grants for adult students. Look into workplace educational benefits.
What do you think is the biggest misconception surrounding adult learners?
In my experience, adult learners who return to higher education often enter with strong feelings of inadequacy. This could be due to previous unsuccessful attempts, the lapse of time since their last formal educational experience or worries about being able to compete with traditional aged college/university students. In reality, they most often exceed their own expectations. In most of my classes, adult learners are setting the bar for the rest of the students. I advise adult students to set small initial goals in classes and let the victories multiply.
I think the biggest misconception about adult learners from the institutional side is that they can do it all on their own. The average university does not design its programs for the non-traditional student and they are not entering in with all of the higher education knowledge that is piled on the graduating high school seniors. Their unique needs can require a little more effort on the part of the institution.

How do you think organizations/employers can help support the majority of our nations students?
Adult learners often need financial support to be successful in completing their degrees. High levels of debt are not a good answer. Some employers, seeing the value of a more educated workforce are offering educational benefits to employees. One local company in Cookeville, Tennessee has created a weekend extended shift that allows employees to attend courses during the week, and they couple this with a tuition reimbursement program. Organizations could create more scholarship programs for adult/returning students. While universities often offer significant support to the traditional 18-year old, there are often fewer resources available for the non-traditional student.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

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