As the number of adults pursuing higher education degrees continues increasing, colleges and universities continue to find ways to cater to their needs
Of the 19.9 million students enrolled in college nationwide in fall 2018, 7.6 million were 25 and older, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And many students who are traditional college age, but face adult-like situations such as raising children or working full time, are also considered adult learners.
To help adult learners, also known as post-traditional students, achieve a degree that will lead to better job opportunities, colleges such as IUPUI and Marian University offer adult study programs while others such as Martin University and Western Governors University (WGU) cater exclusively to post-traditional students. These colleges offer flexible schedules, assistance navigating commitments and classwork to meet students at their knowledge level.
“The majority of our students come from backgrounds that society frowns upon, turns the other cheek, throws away, brands as a hopeless cause or totally isolates,” said Erica Tate, a 34-year-old student at Martin studying social sciences and psychology. “... I’ve heard a range of stories that stem from trauma, abuse as a child and recovering addicts. The backgrounds of our students require a special or nontraditional method of teaching and expectations.”
Dr. Charlesetta Smith Staley, vice president for Academic Affairs at Martin, said a flexible course schedule is crucial for teaching post-traditional students because 90% have work or family commitments. Alison Bell, chancellor of WGU Indiana, noted more than half of her students work full time. To help students with these commitments, schools offer flexible class times during the week and weekend classes as well as online classes.
WGU Indiana’s courses are online only. Students can access online classes 24 hours a day, so they can fit their education around nearly any work schedule.
“I know when I get off of work, I can get on my laptop, open up my course and start working on my material then,” said Michele Freeman, a 37-year-old WGU Indiana student studying nursing. “It allows me more freedom, so I don’t have to worry about changing my work schedule so much to fit my needs.”
Since many of its students are parents, Martin offers the Drop-in Center, a free daycare for children of students. Students majoring in education teach the children lessons alongside licensed teachers. Tate said she would not be able to attend Martin without the Drop-in Center.
“Being a teen mother, Martin has accommodated me in so many ways with the Drop-in Center,” Tate said. “… [The Drop-in Center] made it possible for me to attend school.”
Unlike traditional college students, who went straight from high school into college, many post-traditional college students haven’t attended school for years. This gap often means they may have forgotten lessons taught in high school and need a refresher before beginning course work for their major, Smith-Staley said.
Other post-traditional students have a different problem. These students are pursuing a higher degree in their current careers, so they don’t need the introductory level courses. Schools allow students to take competency tests to earn credits and skip the classes, decreasing the time it takes to get a degree.
“In a traditional model of education, they would have to sit through every class that they haven’t taken,” Bell said. “Regardless of if they know the content or not, they have to wait for the entire semester of the course, take all the tests, turn in all the assignments, sit through the lectures of content they already know, and then they get credit.”
The extended absence away from the classroom doesn’t just affect knowledge. It also affects confidence, education officials said. Re-entering the classroom can be intimidating, so professors should encourage adult learners to help them succeed, said Dr. Ronnie Hiller, a professor in the department of humanities and professional studies at Martin.
“Self confidence in our students is another huge factor we zero in on in our computer class,” Hiller said. “Once students get over their fear of technology and realize that it’s an ever-changing learning situation they can understand, they love it.”
Tate said she, like many students at Martin, lacked someone to push her to succeed. Her professors often fill those emotional holes and give adult learners the encouragement to finish their degree.
“I receive mentorship from various professors, faculty and staff,” Tate said. “It has filled the void that I lacked in my early development. I really feel a motherly and fatherly presence from my mentors.”
Contact staff writer Ben Lashar at 317-762-7848. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminLashar.