Effective Practices that Support Adult Learners

 

College students over the age of 25 are often overlooked in efforts to increase student success. Yet, adult learners make up over one-third of all undergraduate students, with Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and American Indian or Alaska Native undergraduate students enrolling at higher rates as adult learners than other ethnic groups. These students tend to enroll part time (52.0 percent), and more than half (51.5 percent) attend public two-year institutions. Adult learners often maintain jobs as they complete coursework, with slightly less than half (44.0 percent) working full time and approximately one-fourth (24.3 percent) working part time.1

Adult students take on the tough responsibility of balancing postsecondary education and employment to enhance their knowledge and skills in ways that will lead to expanded career options and more competitive credentials. Some seek traditional associate and bachelor’s degrees, while others work toward stackable credentials, professional certificates, micro-credentials, or badges. As workforce demands evolve, so too will the credentials sought by employers, making it imperative that colleges and universities implement programs and structures to support returning and first-time adult students.

Adult learners have distinct challenges when pursuing their education, usually in the form of financial and time limitations. In addition to balancing coursework with jobs, many adult learners have family responsibilities. As a result, institutions may offer specific programs and services to support these students, including financial assistance, flexible scheduling, and wrap-around services that include career and academic advising.

The following programs and services exemplify how institutions can support adult learners’ life circumstances, work to identify their long-term goals, and prepare them to be more competitive in the labor market. This overview of effective practices also highlights relevant research on programs and services that are beneficial to adult learners, and includes examples of how institutions have adapted these practices to increase the success of their adult students.

Use the search tool below to identify effective practices that support adult learners. Use a keyword search and/or the "practices" menu to reveal examples of exemplar institutions utilizing each practice, with links to the institution and a short description of their work.

1. ACE’s analysis of National Postsecondary Student Aid Study 2016 (NPSAS:16) data. Includes degree-granting and non-degree granting institutions. Working while enrolled in college excludes work-study.

Programs and Services Search Tool
Program Name:
Institution:
University of North Carolina, Charlotte
Program Focus:
Completion, Persistence, Retention
Program components that work for adult learners:
Wrap-around services, advising, and financial advising

Housed within the Office of Adult Students and Evening Services (OASES), the 49er Finish Program recruits former UNC Charlotte students to return to school and then supports them as they complete their academic goals. A central component of the program is personalized academic advising throughout. The advisors within the program are trained to assist adult and nontraditional students, and they work with each student to develop and implement individual plans for achieving their goals. Additionally, OASES has resources for other institutions seeking to adapt similar adult learner strategies.

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Intrusive Advising
Institution:
University of Louisville
Program Focus:
Affordability, Completion
Program components that work for adult learners:
Shortened program timeline

​ University of Louisville enables students to obtain both a bachelor’s and master’s degree with shortened timelines and reduced costs. Among its 10 accelerated degree options are history, Spanish, public health, and political science. Notably, its women’s, gender, and sexuality studies program and criminal justice program are both accelerated and offered online. While the bachelor’s degree components entail 120–121 credit hours, students may apply a portion of these earnings to their eventual master’s program for a shortened time to degree.

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Accelerated Programs
Program Name:
Institution:
Robert Morris University
Program Focus:
Affordability, Completion
Program components that work for adult learners:
Shortened program timeline

While not exclusively offered to adult learners, Robert Morris University offers several bachelor’s degrees through three-year programs of study. Majors include criminal justice, economics, history, political science, psychology, social science, sociology, and nursing.

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Accelerated Programs
Institution:
City University of New York
Program Focus:
Affordability, Completion
Program components that work for adult learners:
Flexible scheduling, financial assistance, wrap-around services that include career advising

​ASAP students enroll full-time through block schedules (i.e., morning, afternoon, or evening time frames), allowing them to plan around work and family commitments. Blocks also organize students into cohorts, which increases the sense of belonging and accountability among ASAP students.

ASAP supplements academic structure with financial assistance, such as tuition waivers, textbook assistance, and MetroCards to cover transportation costs. Overall, ASAP students have a three-year graduation rate of 40 percent, with comparable, non-ASAP students graduation rate at 22 percent. Details on these outcomes and the other wrap-around services in the program can be found in the ASAP replication guide, which helps institutions implement their own version of the program.

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Accelerated Programs
Institution:
Albertus Magnus University
Program Focus:
Completion
Program components that work for adult learners:
Flexible scheduling, accelerated timeline

Albertus Magnus University’s flex program offers six-week and eight-week delivery formats, as well as options for online or in-person classes, depending on the student’s preference. The program also has an average faculty-to-student ratio of 1:14, advising, and career services.  Seventeen degrees (including some master’s degree programs) are available in the flex format.

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Accelerated Programs
Program Name:
Institution:
Calumet College of St. Joseph (Indiana)
Program Focus:
Access, Affordability
Program components that work for adult learners:
Increased financial aid package

​In 2019, Calumet College received $100,000 in grant funding that was redistributed to incoming, full-time freshmen and transfer students over the age of 55. The award amount and number of awards allocated varied based on the number of applicants and their levels of financial need, but did not exceed $5,000 per student.

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Repackaging Financial Aid
Institution:
Alamo Colleges District (Texas)
Program Focus:
Completion, Persistence, Retention
Program components that work for adult learners:
Program maps clearly outline a pathway to completion, transfer, and employment; redesigned developmental courses better align with program; flexible class options; career development

Alamo Colleges District created a guided pathways model with two major components. First, AlamoADVISE connects students with academic advisors and includes benchmarks for key decisions like when to pick a major, thus ensuring all students receive consistent information that supports completion. The college also has AlamoINSTITUTES, which includes six career pathways that provide a plan to complete a program in the Alamo Colleges District or transfer to another college or university. The pathways are mapped to a central system that can be accessed by a student at any time online, avoiding the need to take typical working hours to meet with an advisor.

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Guided Pathways
Program Name:
Institution:
South Seattle College (Washington)
Program Focus:
Completion
Program components that work for adult learners:
Work experience and placement in industry of choice

Students in the South Seattle College apprenticeship program are offered an array of certificates that can be stacked toward an associate degree. The apprenticeship program is an “employer-driven ‘earn and learn’ model that combines on-the-job training and related classroom instruction.” This model enables students to apply learned skills to real work experience, which is particularly beneficial to adult learners who often have to work during their studies. In addition, by completing only a few classes outside of their apprenticeship training, apprentices can receive an AAS-T degree in multi-occupational trades. The curriculum is developed in collaboration with industry stakeholders, so students’ training is tailored to industry skill demands.

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Stacking Certificates into Degree Programs
Program Name:
Institution:
Dallas College (Texas)
Program Focus:
Flexibility, Time
Program components that work for adult learners:
Allows for students to decide own pace of academic workload, class schedule.

The Block Schedule Program at Dallas College allows a full-time student to enroll in a defined block of courses, creating scheduling predictability from semester to semester. In advance of each semester, the college publishes the available curricula for each associate degree or certificate program and allows students to sort by blocks so students know which blocks are available. Students may enroll in the entire block curriculum for that semester rather than taking individual courses leading toward the degree or certificate.

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Predictable Scheduling
Program Name:
Institution:
California (across all public colleges)
Program Focus:
Access, Affordability
Program components that work for adult learners:
Increased aid award

In the 2019–20 academic year, student parents attending an institution within the California Community Colleges system, California State University, or the University of California became eligible for an access award of up to $6,000. This award is in addition to the base Cal Grant award amount, which varies by Cal Grant type and each student’s financial need, income, and asset ceiling. As a requirement for award receipt, students must have at least one dependent child under 18 years of age for whom they provide more than half of their financial support for during the academic year.

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Repackaging Financial Aid
Program Name:
Institution:
Milwaukee Area Technical College (Wisconsin)
Program Focus:
Advising, Completion, Labor Market Outcomes
Program components that work for adult learners:
Adaptive advising and publicizing college resources

Milwaukee Area Technical College defines career planning as a process of exploration. In a five-step process, students meet with a career coach, hear about the college’s services, take career assessments, research prospective occupations, learn about the college’s seven different academic pathways, and then reconnect with staff to reflect on their options in their academic pathway. Students are placed on a road to degree completion while they are also encouraged to consider the many academic opportunities offered. In addition, adult learners can communicate their interests, relevant experiences, and concerns to a staff member who can help them best utilize campus resources.

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Career Advising
Program Name:
Institution:
Milwaukee Area Technical College (Wisconsin)
Program Focus:
Advising, Completion, Labor Market Outcomes
Program components that work for adult learners:
Adaptive advising and publicizing college resources

Milwaukee Area Technical College defines career planning as a process of exploration. In a five-step process, students meet with a career coach, hear about the college’s services, take career assessments, research prospective occupations, learn about the college’s seven different academic pathways, and then reconnect with staff to reflect on their options in their academic pathway. Students are placed on a road to degree completion while they are also encouraged to consider the many academic opportunities offered. In addition, adult learners can communicate their interests, relevant experiences, and concerns to a staff member who can help them best utilize campus resources.

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Career Advising
Institution:
Community College of Philadelphia (Pennsylvania)
Program Focus:
Completion, Labor Market Outcomes
Program components that work for adult learners:
Outcome-driven learning, support services

The Career Readiness Soft Skills Pre-Apprenticeship Program prepares students for employment, apprenticeship programs, and advanced education opportunities by teaching critical thinking, problem solving, interpersonal and life skills, budgeting, and basic math skills. Students also receive individualized career counseling and support with resume development, job searching, and interview preparation. Those who complete the program receive a certificate of completion and are enrolled to take the ACT National Career Readiness Certification examination.

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Supportive Services
Institution:
Rio Hondo College (California)
Program Focus:
Advising, Completion, Labor Market Outcomes
Program components that work for adult learners:
Adaptive advising and publicizing college resources

The Center for Career and Re-Entry Services is a designated space on campus where adult learners can access career and educational counseling services, as well as relevant campus activities. The center’s Career Exploration Program has students meet with a counselor to complete career exploration research and an accompanying educational plan. Additional services include career assessments, resume and cover letter development, and job portal access. The center’s services are also available online, adding to its convenience for adult students.

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Career Advising
Institution:
University of Central Florida (UCF)
Program Focus:
Access
Program components that work for adult learners:
Quality assurance and instructional support for online course offerings

The Center for Distributed Learning upholds a mission to support and develop the future of accessible education. As the central agent for online learning at UCF, the center makes a high-quality education available to “anyone, anywhere, anytime through the innovative use of technology.” The center acknowledges the time commitments of adult learners and ensures the quality of online course offerings for those who need alternative modes of instruction.

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Supportive Services
Institution:
Western Governors University
Program Focus:
Completion
Program components that work for adult learners:
Acknowledge informal learning experiences

​ Western Governors University’s competency-based education offerings enable students to advance through course material by demonstrating mastery of concepts, rather than focusing on course hours or traditional pacing. Twenty-four-hour access to online learning resources and one-on-one support from faculty facilitate students’ ability to make degree progress at the time and place of their choosing. Coursework also encourages participants to leverage prior informal learning experiences.

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Competency-based Education
Institution:
University of Maryland Global Campus
Program Focus:
Completion
Program components that work for adult learners:
Acknowledge informal learning experiences

University of Maryland Global Campus considers credit for prior learning as a way for students to save time, save money, and recognize and value the many ways they’ve acquired knowledge. It awards CPL through two programs: Course Challenge and Portfolio. With Course Challenge, the student must pass the equivalent of a final exam to earn credit, which can substitute for almost any undergraduate course for which the university can prepare and administer a suitable examination or assessment. Portfolio guides students in documenting their previous experience through two courses.

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Credit for Prior Learning
Institution:
California Community Colleges
Program Focus:
Completion
Program components that work for adult learners:
Acknowledge informal learning experiences

California Community Colleges’ Credit for Prior Learning Initiative recognizes that helping students graduate—and to do so faster—is a win for both its colleges and students. To support colleges awarding credit for prior learning, it created the Vision Resource Center, which houses resources about CPL, shares practices across campuses, and highlights more equitable prior learning assessment opportunities for students. Faculty and campus leaders can join the organized Credit for Prior Learning Community to receive updates as resources and events are added.

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Credit for Prior Learning
Institution:
Cuyamaca College (California)
Program Focus:
Completion
Program components that work for adult learners:
Co-requisite model keeps students on track to finish on time

​Cuyamaca College has seen tremendous success with their co-requisite math program. Students enroll in two unit co-requisite courses attached to statistics, pre-calculus, or business calculus. With this format, Cuyamaca saw an increase in math completion rates for all students from 15 percent in its traditional two-year math requirement to 69 percent for co-requisite math courses. When outcomes are disaggregated by race and ethnicity, one-year completion of transfer-level math for disproportionally impacted students​ increased. For Black or African American students, their one-year completion was seven times the state average—55 percent, compared with 8 percent. For Latinx students, their one-year completion also increased six times the state average—65 percent, compared with 11 percent. Cuyamaca College was the first college to fully transform remedial math course completion in California and has been highlighted by the California Accelerated Project​ for the co-requisite model’s efforts to close equity gaps.​

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Co-requisite Remediation
Program Name:
Institution:
University of Wisconsin
Program Focus:
Access, Completion, Retention
Program components that work for adult learners:
Flexible course structure

Flexible Option is a self-paced program that gives adult learners control over course length, start date, and end date. This competency-based model focuses on assessment rather than lecture hours. Each course features faculty-led curation of materials, assessments, rubrics, and sequencing, and is complemented by an academic-success coach. Students with relevant prior learning experiences are encouraged to apply their existing knowledge to coursework and assessments.

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Competency-based Education
Institution:
San Jacinto College (Texas)
Program Focus:
Completion, Persistence, Retention
Program components that work for adult learners:
Program maps clearly outline a pathway to completion, transfer, and employment; redesign of entry process for first-time students; career development

San Jacinto College’s Pathway Initiative organized over 100 degree and certificate programs into eight guided pathways called Academies. The initiative also built academic advising, cohort class models, and a clear map for career and/or transfer for continued education into each Academy. As part of the mapping process for associate degrees, staff and faculty from each Academy documented jobs in the college’s service area, verified demand for certificates and degrees, and recorded wage information—eliminating career and technical programs that did not lead to family-supporting wages. For transfer-oriented programs, faculty and staff created maps leading to the five most common transfer destinations, moving students away from general studies degrees that often have credits that do not transfer.

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Guided Pathways
Program Name:
Institution:
Central Lakes College, Dakota County Technical College, Inver Hills Community College, Lake Superior College, Minneapolis College, North Hennepin Community College, Pine Technical and Community College, Riverland Community College, and South Central Colle
Program Focus:
Access, Affordability, Completion, Persistence, Retention
Program components that work for adult learners:
Financial assistance, academic advising, wrap-around services that include affordable childcare, food assistance, and transportation

Minnesota Reconnect is designed for adults who have previously completed a minimum of 15 college credits and are re-enrolling in postsecondary education. Students are eligible for $1,000 each semester (in addition to any federal and state grants), which can be used toward tuition and other expenses (e.g., books, childcare, transportation). The program provides students with custom plans, as well as navigators who help seek out available childcare, reliable transportation, food assistance, veteran services, and other resources for adult learners.

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College Promise Programs
Institution:
University of Wyoming
Program Focus:
Retention
Program components that work for adult learners:
Staff dedicated to connecting older students with academic and economic resources

The Nontraditional Student Center at the University of Wyoming provides a space on campus for nontraditional students to receive support services (e.g., information about scholarships, computer access), complete their coursework, and build community with peers. The center classifies nontraditional students as those over the age of 25, working on a master’s or doctoral degree, married, a parent or otherwise responsible for dependents, a ward or dependent of the court, a U.S. Armed Forces Veteran, and/or a child of deceased parents. By providing a physical space on campus for nontraditional students, the center encourages adult learners are to network and develop a stronger sense of belonging through peer relationships.

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Supportive Services
Institution:
Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, Cuyahoga Community College, and Lorain County Community College (Ohio)
Program Focus:
Affordability, Completion
Program components that work for adult learners:
Flexible scheduling, financial assistance, and wrap-around services that include career advising

Three Ohio community colleges adopted a version of CUNY’s ASAP—an accelerated degree program specifically designed to optimize completion—but tailored to a student population that is older, more likely to be parents, and twice as likely to be employed relative to those who participated in the CUNY iteration. Cuyahoga Community College, Lorain County Community College, and Cincinnati State Technical and Community College all saw strong outcomes: 35 percent of students offered program services earned an associate degree within three years, compared to 19 percent of students in the control group at those colleges.

Lorain County Community College continues to offer the Students Accelerating in Learning (SAIL) program. SAIL is similar to CUNY’s ASAP, with some adjustments made for the region and population served. For example, instead of MetroCards, the college offers gift cards for use at local gas stations and grocery stores. SAIL also includes key financial supports and wrap-around services, such as tutoring, mentoring, advising, and career counseling.

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Accelerated Programs
Program Name:
Institution:
Multiple
Program Focus:
Access, Completion
Program components that work for adult learners:
From a state approach, transparency to the military experience and coursework that translates to college credit; aligns Ohio’s public institutions and their transfer decisions

The Ohio Values Veterans initiative built from a state executive order to ensure that service members and veterans receive credit for their experiences. Military Transfer Assurance Guides facilitate statewide guarantees and connect institutions to a variety of toolkits that include policies, enrollment services, awarding credit, training and general military and veterans services.

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Veterans Supportive Services
Institution:
Roxbury Community College (Massachusetts)
Program Focus:
Completion
Program components that work for adult learners:
Co-requisite model keeps students on track to finish on time

The co-requisite model at Roxbury Community College (RCC) closes equity gaps by allowing students to take both their developmental math course and their college-level math course simultaneously. The developmental course is not credit bearing, and therefore is cost-free, allowing students to maximize their financial aid toward degree-completion courses. The pilot program for this model ran from spring 2016 to spring 2018. Out of 221 students who enrolled in the pilot program, the majority of the students passed college math (64 percent). Once the program officially launched in summer 2018, similar results were found with 63 percent of the 251 students enrolled in the program passing college math. In 2019, RCC presented its outcomes at the League for Innovation in the Community College’s Innovations Conference.

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Co-requisite Remediation
Program Name:
Institution:
Colorado State University (CSU) Global
Program Focus:
Completion
Program components that work for adult learners:
Self-pacing and flexibility in offerings, support from professional staff

CSU Global designed its online certificates, specializations, and degrees to work as building blocks for students, and these stackable credentials are also entirely online, which brings added convenience and flexibility for adult learners. With these programs, students can gain expertise in their current discipline or field while also working toward longer-term career goals. Students work with an enrollment counselor, advisor, and industry career coach to create an education plan that meets both their needs and those of their potential employer. Students start with a short-term certificate program specialization that can be stacked toward completing a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a related field.

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Stacking Certificates into Degree Programs
Institution:
Multiple
Program Focus:
Access, Completion, Persistence
Program components that work for adult learners:
Centralized support services with targeted outreach

Across more than 1,500 campuses, Student Veterans of American (SVA) provides resources, network support, and advocacy for veterans in higher education. Outside of its advocacy and research efforts, SVA hosts an annual gathering for student veterans and chapter-specific activities that provide members with social supports and resources.

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Veterans Supportive Services
Program Name:
Institution:
Tennessee Community Colleges and selected other institutions
Program Focus:
Access, Affordability, Completion, Persistence
Program components that work for adult learners:
Financial assistance, academic advising, wrap-around services that include affordable childcare and transportation

Tennessee Reconnect is a Promise program that specifically helps adults return to higher education in order to gain new skills, advance in the workplace, or fulfill lifelong dreams of completing a degree. The program covers tuition for four or more semesters at any of the state’s 13 community colleges, as well as select programs at some public and independent universities. As a last-dollar grant, it pays the remaining balance of tuition and mandatory fees after other state and federal financial aid have been applied.

In addition to providing financial aid, Tennessee Reconnect provides students with a Reconnect Navigator. This individual offers potential and current adult students institution-neutral college navigation, as well as assistance with wrap-around supports (e.g., affordable childcare, transportation). Navigators provide students with individualized academic plans, resources, and information based on their specific needs. The first year of the program (2018–19) saw a success rate of 61 percent, measured by program completion or continued enrollment in pursuit of another credential.

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College Promise Programs
Program Name:
Institution:
Colorado College
Program Focus:
Flexibility, Time
Program components that work for adult learners:
Allows for students to decide own pace of academic workload, class schedule.
The Block program at Colorado College lets students take one class at a time for a shorter term period. Instead of enrolling for a longer term with multiple classes, a block lasts for three and a half weeks, where one block is equal to one semester course. Students can take up to four blocks per semester, or eight blocks per year, with the option of a half block during winter and summer sessions. The class period is usually from 9 a.m. to noon, Monday through Friday.
Filter by Practice:
Predictable Scheduling
Institution:
Multiple
Program Focus:
Access, Completion, Persistence
Program components that work for adult learners:
Centralized support services with targeted outreach

Veterans Education Success improves accountability for the GI Bill, alongside supporting career and education opportunities for military families. More specifically, veterans and military-connected students are given free legal services, college and career counseling, and other support surrounding the GI Bill. Additionally, the program produces non-partisan research related to student veteran outcomes and policy advocacy, and it engages government officials and the media to support veterans’ civic engagement.

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Veterans Supportive Services
Institution:
Multiple, resources provided through the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs
Program Focus:
Access, Retention
Program components that work for adult learners:
Campus and community learning environment cohesion, access to Veteran Affairs health care services and on-campus clinical counseling, coordination of all mental and physical health services, academic accommodations support

VITAL supports academic retention and success by helping veterans with their transition to college. VITAL includes services for physical and mental health, and the program connects students to government and campus resources to ease their transition to campus. Collaborating colleges and universities include Bunker Hill Community College, Middlesex Community College,

North Shore Community College, and Northeastern University.

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Veterans Supportive Services
Program Name:
Institution:
Tidewater Community College (Virginia)
Program Focus:
Affordability
Program components that work for adult learners:
Open Educational Resource Program that reduces the cost of attending college

In 2013, Tidewater Community College became the first regionally accredited institution to offer a textbook-free degree—a Z-degree. The program was led by a group of faculty members who worked as liaisons between administrators, instructors, and librarians, helping educators find and use OER such as articles, YouTube videos, and websites—anything that resides in public domain or has been released under an intellectual property license that permits free use and re-purpose. These resources allowed instructors to create courses that did not have any additional costs to students, increasing the likelihood that they would be able to complete the course. Indeed, a 2016 study of Tidewater’s Z-degree program found that students who participated in OER sections were less likely to withdraw and more likely to get a C or better in both in-person and hybrid/online courses than students who did not enroll in OER sections.

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Open Educational Resources
About Practice Types

 Accelerated Programs

Accelerated programs emphasize shorter completion rates and embed components that increase persistence and retention of adult students, including tuition assistance and career counseling. Accelerated programs also build in flexible scheduling, usually a mix of day or evening classes, in-person and online classes, structured and self-paced options, as well as block scheduling and shorter terms. Combinations of these options give adult learners greater time flexibility, as well as the ability to blend modes of learning. The curriculum of many accelerated degree programs is developed with adult learners in mind, as it is tailored both to adults’ ability to self-manage and their interest in practical applications.

Several factors contribute to the efficacy of accelerated programs, including a focus on credit-bearing classes, cohort learning, individualized attention, and contextual learning. In addition to improving completion rates, these components address the time and financial constraints many adult learners may face.

 Career Advising

Career advising ensures that students’ degree plans and coursework align with their long-term goals. Research suggests that adult learners particularly benefit from targeted outreach. Indeed, relative to other forms of advising, career support may be particularly important for nontraditional students who are less likely to discuss various college experiences, such as classroom and extracurricular activities, with their advisor. Workshops and networking opportunities specifically for nontraditional students, as well as online resources and services that can be accessed anytime, are often used. These strategies make resources for adult learners accessible while also improving learners’ connectedness on campus. Institutions seeking to tailor career advising for adult learners should consider additional components, such as sensitivity toward students’ past experiences in the job market and workplace, as well as creating quiet places in which adult learners can complete job applications.

 College Promise Programs

One factor that affects adult learner retention is financial support. College Promise programs reduce the cost of college attendance through grants, while offering wrap-around student support services. Currently, more than 350 Promise programs operate across 47 states and the District of Columbia. Each Promise program develops criteria to determine award eligibility, such as applicant age, minimum GPA, or financial need. Promise programs can vary in their coverage area (e.g., statewide versus local programs) and population of interest (e.g., areas of study, adult learners) but all aim to make college more accessible. Research on Promise programs has shown a positive impact on postsecondary attainment for students from underserved groups, such as adult learners.

 Competency-based Education

​Competency-based education is a course-based approach that affords students flexibility with “time, place [and] pace of learning” through a variety of personalized educational opportunities. Adult learners often have a wide range of past learning experiences as well as instructional preferences. Competency-based education allows for not only credit recovery, but also online learning and dual enrollment. These options enable students to leverage their existing knowledge in an assessment-focused environment and reduce time spent in course lectures, further supporting students’ ability to balance their degree progress with nonacademic responsibilities.

 Co-requisite Remediation

Adult learners who are first-time students or are returning to higher education after some time away may be required to enroll in developmental or requisite gateway courses, such as math and English, before proceeding to the next course level. In a co-requisite model, students enroll in both the developmental and core course at the same time, potentially saving time for adult learners as they progress toward their credential. Research has demonstrated that many students never get past their developmental pre-requisite courses and as a result are unable to take actual transfer-level or credit-bearing courses. Moreover, prerequisite models lead to continuous equity gaps. In one example of a co-requisite model, Tennessee has seen improvements in both completion rates in college-level math and English classes, as well as the number of courses accumulated by the end of the second year. While not all co-requisite efforts are as successful as Tennessee’s, the model has potential to work particularly well for adult learners.  

 Credit for Prior Learning

Credit for prior learning (CPL) is a process by which a student's knowledge and expertise acquired through life and professional experience are validated for academic credit. This strategy differs from competency-based education, which tests skills and outcomes within a structured academic environment to award credit. However, CPL is considered an integral component to strengthen competency-based education. Types of CPL include evaluation of non-college programs, standardized examinations, faculty-developed challenge exams, or portfolios or other individualized assessments. No matter the assessment, research indicates that students who receive credit for prior learning have increased confidence in their abilities and graduate at higher rates.

 Guided Pathways

Guided pathways streamline the educational journey of students at community colleges, setting a clear path to achieve their college credential. This approach also allows both the student and their advisor to quickly assess when the student gets off path, saving valuable time, effort, and money. For adult learners, knowing the demands and requirements of a program in advance enables them to plan around career and family obligations, helping them navigate a complicated system in limited time. Achieving the Dream recently released a report noting the multiple benefits of guided pathways as a critical strategy for adult learners, and the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College published What We Know About Guided Pathways,  which summarizes evidence supporting their design principles in improving student outcomes.

 Intrusive Advising

Intrusive advising is an active process where advisors connect students with appropriate resources, advocate for their needs, and routinely check in. In traditional advising, students meet with an advisor on their own initiative, but intrusive advising places the onus on advisors to recruit, engage, and develop a student-centered relationship with their advisee. This approach ensures that students are exposed to services and programs they might need to be socially and academically successful. Intrusive advising is suited to adult learners because advisors can ensure their students are aware of the deadlines, requirements, and resources needed to stay on track toward their goals.

 Open Educational Resources

Too often, the unanticipated expenses of college deter students from completing, particularly adult students with competing demands on their budget. Because textbook costs add to up nearly one-third of an associate degree’s cost, community colleges have turned to open educational resources (OER) to support students’ access and completion. Open educational resources are publicly available and free instruction materials, and they are frequently used in textbook-free programs.

As part of Achieving the Dream’s OER initiative, 38 community colleges across 13 states have adopted OER-degree programs. The 2020 report on the initiative found that students saved at least $10.7 million in material costs associated with instruction. Moreover, students who took multiple OER courses, on average, earned more college credits over time than otherwise similar students who took no OER courses.

 Predictable Scheduling

​Predictable scheduling (also known as block scheduling) offers adult students flexibility and contributes to retention 1. Courses and labs are conveniently offered in set blocks, such as a morning, full-day, afternoon, evening, or weekend schedule, which helps adult learners organize their responsibilities with work, family, and other commitments. With a predictable schedule that remains the same from semester to semester, adult students are better able to balance their competing demands.


1: Tinto, Vincent. 1996. “Reconstructing the First Year of College.” Planning for Higher Education 25, no. 1: 1–6.

 Repackaging Financial Aid

​Adult learners often depend on financial aid to balance living expenses with their coursework. Some colleges repackage financial aid to provide more aid to adult learners who have more demonstrated financial need than their younger peers. Institutions may also advocate for additional state-level aid for these learners.

 Stacking Certificates into Degree Programs

Stacking certificates to degree programs primarily occur at community colleges. Stacking refers to the strategy of breaking down long-term degrees into short-term programs that build on one another, which can ultimately result in certificates or build toward a degree. Stacking certificate programs attract adult learners who may need more time to complete a full degree as they balance their immediate needs, such as career or family. In some cases these shorter programs can have a positive effect on long-term enrollment and degree completion, but they should be implemented with care. Not every credential carries market value, and short programs can reinforce racial disparities.

 Supportive Services

​As adult learners acclimate to college expectations and culture, support services are valuable tools to help them meet their educational goals, with nontraditional students reporting that they would be likely to use them. Support services for adult learners can help strengthen students’ connections with their campus community and increase persistence and completion. Online access to support services may be particularly beneficial for adult learners who are juggling school with work and family and cannot engage with in-person services.

 Veterans Supportive Services

Veterans are an important group in the adult learner population, often transitioning to postsecondary education after military service. Adjusting to college can be difficult, and studies indicate that veterans experience a host of challenges, from financial issues to adapting to a new learning environment. Veterans may need support with transferring credits, adjusting or readjusting to academic culture, physical issues, mental health challenges, and social isolation.1 ACE’s Toolkit for Veteran Friendly Institutions provides guidance for institutions as they identify their veteran population and tailor support services for their success.


1. Hopkins, Charles, Douglas Herrmann, Roland B. Wilson, Bert Allen and Lynn Malley. 2010. Improving College Education of Veterans. Washington, DC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Methodology

The effective practices and programs to support adult learners that are highlighted in this tool were selected through literature reviews and recommendations from subject matter experts. Details for each featured practice and program were derived from their respective organization or institution website.

 
 

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