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Eileen Snyder, Georgia Southern University, Armstrong Campus
Leana Zona, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Leana Zona.jpgEileen Snyder.jpgAdult learners are returning to college at a record pace.  According to a recent article in the Washington Post, “More than a third of today’s students are over 25,” and “More than half of them have jobs and more than a quarter are raising children” (Merisotis, 2017, para. 19).  In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Education (2016), enrollment of students over the age of 25 increased by 16% from 2004–2014, and that number is growing.  As Malcolm Knowles (1984) remarked in his landmark publication, Adult Learners: A Neglected Species, “The adult comes into an educational activity largely because he is experiencing some inadequacy in coping with current life problems” (p. 34).  One of these “inadequacies” that Knowles mentioned could be a result of new job creation, which requires a college degree.  Further, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce stated that “95 percent of new jobs created since the Great Recession ended in late 2010 went to people with an education beyond high school” (as cited in Merisotis, 2017, para. 12).

As a result, colleges are reaching back to their own adult learners seeking to complete a degree and asking them to return.  A programmatic example of this outreach is the 49er Finish Program at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNC Charlotte), who have been actively pursuing their stop out students for over 10 years, catering to adult learners who are seeking to finish what they started.  UNC Charlotte’s tactics are threefold: personalized marketing, support services, and institutional enhancements.  So what are the implications for institutions that are actively welcoming back their adult learners with programs like the 49er Finish Program?  And, specifically, how do we as advisors of adult learners advise and guide this unique population to degree completion?  

Even with a clear understanding of the many impediments that exist for adult learners, an institutional acknowledgement to provide exceptional training for advisors is paramount.  Through developing a mechanism to collect information on where the gaps exist, the advisors of adult learners can collectively address the trapdoors that adult learners fall through on their path to degree completion.  A gap could exist in vital services such as tutoring or supplemental instruction, inadequate course scheduling and format limitations, or instructors who are unaware of the principles of andragogy that are proven to maintain persistence among adult learners.  It is a great deal to consider, but the rewards are great for institutions that welcome adult learners.  If America is to compete in a global economy, those of us working in higher education must prepare the workforce of the 21st century.  A college degree is a credential that allows adult students to participate in a middle class life.  This is not just about owning a home, starting a family, or securing a career.  This includes what Maslow refers to as “self-actualization,” or as Knowles (1984) put it so eloquently, “in defining growth not as a process of ‘being shaped,’ but a process of becoming” (p. 34).

Academic advisors must support adult learners in identifying the shortest possible route to graduation for their adult learners.  Adult learners may not need coaching or mentoring; they need an authentic relationship in which the academic advisor is invested from day one.  Marques and Luna (2005) identify this relationship as a powerful one, stating, “Interaction with a well-informed, adequately involved advisor can also contribute greatly toward adult learners’ satisfaction levels and persistence rates” (p. 5).  Keeping in mind that advisors have to work within the same parameters and limitations; realities such as these call for advisors to become change agents by advocating for adult students while mapping out the path to graduation.

The first conversation with adult learners is often the most critical.  Asking the right questions and developing a rapport in which we as advisors use a collaborative approach can help make the transition for the adult learner seamless.  We should not use deficit language or provoke our adult learners to re-think their decision to return to school.  Keep in mind that adult learners do a great deal of thinking and problem solving before they make their return.  Research by Osam, Bergman, and Cumberland (2017) shows that, “adult learners with a heavy burden of responsibility are the students most likely to return” (p. 57).  Adult learners are more committed to completing their degree, and they expect this time it will be different.

As academic advisors, we need to listen, connect, and share.  The following recommendations are a compilation of best practices we consider to be effective in supporting the adult learner’s educational goals.

  1. Prepare for the first meeting by developing a mechanism in which to understand the challenges of the returning adult learner, such as adult and transfer advisors at Georgia Southern University who use a Google questionnaire in which to calibrate the students’ needs and motivation.
  2. Offer existing degree programs that are the shortest to completion, maximizing their credit hours earned.
  3. Develop workshops for students on hot topics of concern such as online learning, technology based courses, hybrid courses, and accelerated courses. 
  4. Advise students through a developmental or appreciative advising approach.  This will allow a transfer of power to the student that is seeking an experience of self-direction.
  5. Know the readmission process.  There should be a close collaborative relationship with the registrar, admissions, academic departments, and financial aid.
  6. Connect frequently either by email, text, or face-to-face.  Advisors should carry a realistic load in order to provide more attention.
  7. Document each meeting.  There should be a repository in which to review advising notes and see the big picture.
  8. Share your story.  Adult learners need to hear real experiences; your story should be authentic and persuasive in tone and content.
  9. Help them find balance.  Adult learners want fast and that can lead to burn out.  This is an important discussion early in the relationship.
  10. Highlight adult learner achievements with the college community.  Capture and use their inspirational stories (and there are many) to motivate others.

Eileen Snyder
Academic Advisor
Georgia Southern University, Armstrong Campus

Leana Zona, M.Ed.
Academic Advisor & Communications Specialist
Office of Adult Students & Evening Services
The University of North Carolina at Charlotte


Knowles, M. S. (1984). The adult learner: A neglected species. Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing.

Marques, J. F., & Luna, R. (2005, June). Advising adult learners: The practice of peer partisanship. Recruitment & Retention in Higher Education, 19(6), 5.

Merisotis, J. (2017, July 14). Not who you think: The truth about today’s college students. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2017/07/14/not-who-you-think-the-truth-about-todays-college-students/?utm_term=.4ae99db9d3bb

Osam, E. K., Bergman, M., & Cumberland, D. M. (2017, May). An integrative literature review on the barriers impacting adult learners’ return to college. Adult Learning, 28(2), 54-56.

U.S. Department of Education. (2016). Digest of education statistics, 2015 (51st ed.). Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=98

Cite this article using APA style as: Snyder, E., & Zona, L. (2018, March). The returning adult learner: Advising strategies to support their degree completion efforts. Academic Advising Today, 41(1). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2018 March 41:1


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