Written by Svenn Richard Mathisen

Non-traditional students. Mature students. Adult learners. While there are many different names for this demographic of older students, they may be more common than you may think: In fact, according to a recent NPR report, more than two-thirds of today’s college students aren’t coming straight from high school; half are financially independent; and a quarter are parents themselves. The takeaway? Meeting their needs is important. To that end, here are four things worth knowing about adult learners.

1. They’re extremely involved in their studies.

Adult learners may be juggling many things, but this doesn’t mean their studies are secondary to their other commitments. In fact, they may be more involved than their younger counterparts because they uniquely appreciate the opportunity to be there.

Contends Stanford University part-time consulting professor in online faculty development blog Tomorrow’s Professor Postings, “Remember that in most cases, the adults you are teaching have chosen to be there. They want to learn. So most of the time, you have the learners on your side from the beginning.  It is important to remember that your students will often come from very diverse backgrounds, and you must make a serious effort to get to know the learners. Of course, this is more practical with a small group than in a large lecture class.  But even in the large class setting, you can demonstrate respect for all learners and show that you value their diverse backgrounds.”

At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge the very real obstacles adult learners face. David Scobey, who heads up a US bachelor’s degree program aimed specifically at adults, tells NPR, “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.”

2. They have similar goals as “traditional” college students.

Just because students are older doesn’t mean they have different objectives than their younger counterparts. In fact, while there’s a widely accepted notion that older learners head back to school from the workforce to fill an existing “skills gap” in their qualifications, this may not be the case for a simple reason, according to Scobey: It comes at it from the wrong angle.

“The first thing wrong with this thinking is that it prioritizes the (immediate, changing) needs of the labor market over the needs and aspirations of adult students themselves. But if you ask incoming adult community college students about their educational aspirations, more than 70 percent want to get a bachelor's or beyond,” explains Scobey.

His proposed solution? Shifting the focus from one-size-fits-all technical workforce training to more liberal learning with the overarching goal of “job security and economic success” -- NOT a finite (and, by nature, eventually obsolete) set of skills.

3. They enter higher education with different educational backgrounds.

Just because mature learners may have the same goals as traditional learners doesn’t mean their different routes to college aren’t a factor. At the same time, the leap to thinking of their backgrounds as detrimental is a leap in the wrong direction. Why? Because the knowledge base they’ve acquired from their life experiences has tremendous value -- particularly when harnessed in the most advantageous way.

Proposes eLearning Industry, “Adult learners accumulate knowledge most effectively when they are active participants in their own learning process...When they acquire knowledge on their own, they get inspired to pursue other avenues of self study and online education, and to become more fully engaged in the eLearning environment.”

In other words, mature students are likely to thrive in learning environments which encourage exploration through hands-on and relevant activities and assignments.

4. They crave peer support.

Non-traditional students have support systems in their personal lives. But this is not the same as having support systems in their academic lives. And this, say experts, is especially important. Suggests Scobey of the most successful adult-serving bachelor’s programs, “All of them are characterized by cultures of strong support — both the ‘vertical support’ of mentors, advisers and teachers, and the ‘horizontal support’ of strong peer community.”

Scobey stresses the vital importance of the peer-to-peer component. “[These programs] tend to nurture cultures of sustained peer-to-peer help; students simply won’t let each other fail,” continues Scobey.

If you’re an adult learner, being aware of these commonalities can help you make sure you’ve got access to everything you need to success in college. One last thing to keep in mind as you continue toward your education goals? Don’t undersell yourself because your path to get there was different.

Insists Scobey, “Adult learners shouldn’t be pushed to attain a credential simply to fulfill short-term labor market gaps or to boost policy-makers’ completion goals. They should be educated because they deserve a great education.”

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