The Time is Right for Adult Nontraditional Students

The time is right for all prospective adult nontraditional students who may be wondering if they should pursue higher education to take action. The time is right for employers to encourage employees across their company to upgrade their skills, gain knowledge that will keep them competitive and earn the degree that may be a life-long goal.

The adult nontraditional student population is rapidly growing and changing the higher education environment. Institutions of higher education are recognizing the importance of meeting the needs of older students in terms teaching methods they use and the logistics of scheduling for people who already have multiple responsibilities.

These responsibilities create a variety of obstacles. Students may feel a lack of confidence in their ability to continue or complete their education. Students may find time conflicts with family, child care, and work and school responsibilities. “The obstacles they face are as diverse as their lives,” says David Scobey, Professor of Community Bates College. “But here’s one key way of understanding what they share: Adult, nontraditional students have to fit their studies into complex lives with multiple roles and stressors, rather than being able to organize their work and social life around a central role as a college student.”

Solutions to these obstacles are increasing just as the numbers and proportion of adult nontraditional student are increasing.

Adult nontraditional students returning to the classroom after stopping out of their education for a period of time, or those who didn’t begin their education right after high school, may lack confidence. Many of them may feel that their ability to learn to new skills and acquire new knowledge might not be as keen as it was when they were younger. Working in a classroom setting with younger students may seem daunting. This obstacle shouldn’t hold adult nontraditional students back, says Dr. James Fallon, a neuroscientist at University of California, Irvine. He says that people reach their maximum cognitive abilities in their 60s.

The cognitive ability to learn at any age indicates that making tuition assistance programs available to all employees is a best practice for businesses. Employers have the opportunity to support their employees through the process of attaining education that will fill skills gaps as well as help motivated employees reach their goals. The work experience that students take to the classroom is a benefit in several ways. Students see the link between their work and academic studies. They have the opportunity to apply what they are learning giving an immediate return to their employer, and they are able to reinforce what they are learning with hands-on application.

The time students must invest in education is often an obstacle for adult nontraditional students. Their time is already divided between work, family and social responsibilities. Higher education institutions recognize the time investment adult students have already made in their careers and the time investment yet to be made in their education. Schools that apply teaching practices that complement adult students’ work and learning style help overcome the time obstacle. Dr. Levon T. Esters and Quintana Clark or Purdue University explain how schools strive to help adult nontraditional students. “Older students favor self-directed learning, share an immense reservoir of experiences and knowledge, demonstrate enthusiasm to learn, place emphasis on task- or problem-centered learning and possess a high degree of intrinsic motivation.”

Many schools and programs acknowledge the return on the career and work time students have already invested. They recognize adult nontraditional students’ work experience and prior knowledge gained from life and work experience and award credit through competency-based programs. When students can earn credits from competency-based education programs, they achieve goals quicker and benefit from the achievement sooner.

Adult nontraditional students are motivated by many factors. Most of them want to gain skills and knowledge that will help them advance in their jobs and be able to earn more. This would help them create better, more stable lives for their families. Many of them want to set an example for their families, and for others it may be the drive to fulfill a personal goal. Businesses that lock on to this motivation and encourage workers to achieve higher education will benefit from workers’ achievement.

The time is right for adult nontraditional learners to pursue higher education, and for businesses and schools to support their efforts. “Neither higher ed, nor the job market, nor our democracy can succeed if we don’t do a better job of offering great, transformative opportunities to the millions of adults in college and the millions who seek to return to college,” says Scobey. Offering opportunities means helping workers achieve the skills they need to stay current in their jobs, and help fill skills gaps, but it also is bigger than that. It also means supporting adult nontraditional students in achieving educational goals and dreams. Scobey says if you ask incoming adult community college students more than 70 percent of them want to earn a bachelor’s degree or beyond. “They should be educated because they deserve a great education,” he says.