Learners as Consumers
By Kenn Skorupa
When we think of adult learners and how to approach them as admissions
counselors, program advisors and instructors, several aspects of
their adult status usually come to mind. Among these are the fact
that adults play multiple roles in their lives, that they often
have anxiety about returning to school and that many times they
are experiencing some sort of life transition at the time they decide
to return to school. One characteristic of current and prospective
adult students that is often overlooked, particularly by the administration,
is the fact that they are consumers and are generally looking for
the most out of their time and money.
educators, we don't like to fashion ourselves as being sales personnel.
If I wanted to get into sales, I would have gone into an industry
where I could have actually made money. The irony is that when we,
with our graduate degrees representing the university and all it
has to offer, encourage potential adult students to go back to school
to get a better job and make more money, the fact is that these
adults are usually making more money than we are without a degree.
So, if we really knew what we were talking about, we probably wouldn't
be having the conversation with the person in the first place.
then again, money isn't everything. The benefits of a college degree
go way beyond the tangible aspects of time and money. But how do
you convince a person so fixed on these commodities that they really
will enjoy the process, that they will experience a great deal of
pride and accomplishment and that their view of the world will be
enlarged and enriched? For those people who do not enter your office
believing these things, it is going to be a hard sell. And what
about that change in perspective? It can be quite a difficult adjustment
for some adults who achieve a good deal of personal growth in a
relatively short time. 'If a learner's mate, friends, or coworkers
are vested in particular ways of viewing the world, they may find
it unsettling, at best, and threatening, at worst, to be challenged
(by new) perspectives, (Taylor, Marienau and Fiddler, 2000).
feeling of being threatened often presents itself during initial
contacts with adult prospective students. The conversation goes
a little like this. The student says, 'You know, I don't even
need this degree. I mean, I have gotten along perfectly fine without
it. Its just a piece of paper.' At this point you feel an obligation
to defend your background, your profession and the rest of the academic
community. You nod your head and say, 'Well... ' And
if you are really in a surly mood, you say, 'That's true, but
if you change your mind later, give us a call.' The reverse
psychology thing usually works in this situation. Often they proceed
to come up with 8 to 10 convincing arguments for why they should
actually do it.
reason for this reluctance to return to school has to do with their
previous experience of the power struggle they have had with educators.
And unfortunately, this power struggle still exists in some classrooms.
Taylor, Marienau and Fiddler (2000) state, 'most of us learned
how to be educators in learning environments where the authority
figure took responsibility for nearly every aspect of the process,
what was done, how it was done, and how it was evaluated (including)
who spoke, when, and to whom.' Few adults wish to invest a
good deal of their resources into a situation that will not allow
them the freedom to learn in a cooperative and interactive environment.
then there's the competition. How does your program compare to all
others available out there? Well, that is tough question. Often
it is difficult just keep abreast of all the available program options
in your own institution, let alone those from other institutions.
For adults, shopping for a college program is often no different
than getting that new car, buying insurance or calling the travel
agent. Josie Gibson, from New Mexico Highlands, tells how a recent
prospect was looking for a hard-core sales pitch. 'She wanted
me to convince her to not attend the other schools rather than focus
on what we had to offer,' Gibson said. In addition, adult students
expect that you have all of the resources, staff and latest technology
at your fingertips to provide instant answers and processing of
requests. Little do they know about the budget realities that many
academic institutions face. After all, what you are selling costs
what exactly is it that we are selling? It's not a product. It's
not a service. What we are selling is an opportunity. We are offering
them the opportunity to pay their tuition and then they have to
do the work. While we can do everything possible to make their stay
in our institution pleasant, seamless and supportive, they still
must have the dedication, motivation and talent to create meaning
and worth to what we are offering them. Dean Julian, Ed. D., N.C.C.
from University of Pittsburgh, College of General Studies, says
that adult learners have different psychological needs and perspectives
than traditional-aged learners. 'Adult students have a greater
need for motivation, inspiration and guidance since they have more
responsibilities than younger students whose primary responsibility
is school,' Julian said. Julian goes on to say that adults
respond better to low pressure and that trust is very important
in the relationship with their advisors. Julian believes that many
adult students have some degree of fear and stated, 'When they
verbalize their fears, they feel better about the investment.
else does this consumer mentality of adult students present itself?
Janice Ford Freeman, from the University of Alabama, Birmingham
says that you can see it in the attitudes these students have about
instructors. Ford Freeman says that adult students will complain
that the instructor is too easy or that they let the students out
of class early or that the course content is poorly organized. She
notes these complaints are seldom given from traditional-aged students.
In addition, Ford Freeman says that adult students often want to
know as much as possible about a course and the instructor before
taking it. Requests for syllabi, instructor ratings and the purpose
of topics included in the curriculum are common from adult students.
how does Ford Freeman relate to adult students differently than
traditional-aged students? 'I am less directive with adults.
I try to explain things in greater detail and find that my relationship
with them is less formal,' Freeman said. Julie Fellers Hook,
from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, agrees that
adults are more consumer oriented. According to Hook, adult students
research their decisions more, they often consider their time to
be a more important investment than their money, they place greater
emphasis on the reputation of the institution and they are much
Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), in a recent
publication (2000), outlined their 'Educational Principles
That Work for Adults Who Work.' Included in their list of principles
of what the institution should provide adult learners were the following:
to overcome barriers of time, place, and tradition to create lifelong
access; to address the career and life goals of adult learners;
to provide an array of payment options; to assess skills acquired
through the curriculum and experience; to provide multiple methods
of instruction; to enhance student capabilities to be self-directed
learners; to provide information technology to enhance the learning
experience; and, to engage in strategic relationships and collaborations
with employers and other organizations.
what does all of this tell us? How do we balance 'the customer
is always right' with student responsibility? How do we provide
the service that adults expect with resources directed primarily
towards traditional-aged learners? How do we inspire trust, motivation
and courage in our adult learners? How do we satisfy their desire
to get the most they can for their investment?
we must become strong advocates for the direction of budgetary resources
toward our growing population of adult students. And second is to
remind yourself of how you felt the last time you were left on hold,
the last time you were overcharged for something on your credit
card or last time you could not decide whether to invest your pension
funds into one option or the other. Then take the time to listen
to your students and remember to end each conversation with the
question, 'is there anything else I can do for you?'
Adult Learner Commission Past Chair
More About It! Annotated bibliography of resources dealing with
Adult Learner Resource links and Frequently Asked Questions
Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (2000). Serving Adult
Learners in Higher Education: Principles of Effectiveness. Chicago:
Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. www.cael.org
Adult Learners by Kathleen Taylor, Catherine Marienau, and Morris
Fiddler. Copyright 2000 by Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco,
Adult (non-traditional) students Student Services links and Frequently
this resource using APA style as:
Kenn (2002, December).Adult learners as consumers.
The A cademic Advising News, 25(3). Retrieved
from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic
Advising Resources Web site:[Insert URL Here]
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