What Academic Advisors Know about Adult Learners

EdAssist academic advisors

When high school seniors apply to college (as millions are about to do), it's generally accepted that their academic fortunes will depend on finding a school that's the right fit.

But that presumption (that a school should "fit") disappears when we talk about adult learners. Somehow when students are already working, we think one school - any school - will do.

Understanding Adult Learners

It's a curious problem, especially since adults arguably have more parameters to work around. Fitting higher-ed into a professional's life means at least accommodating a job; in many cases, there's also a family. Plus, a few years in the workforce has probably taught employees a thing or two about what they want out of education. So instead of meandering around campus looking for a major as they did when they were teens, they have some extremely specific career goals.

Our academic advisors hear this from our students all the time. And it's just one reason we know that funneling all students to one school will never work. Yet many learning departments continue to rely on a single school or model to do it all. Even the most well-intentioned programs - Starbuck's full tuition, for example ; rely on a single school to satisfy thousands of people.

But the idea continues to come up short. Most recently, coding boot camps began looking a little less like the single answer to all of our educational needs. That's not a knock on boot camps ; only the idea that any one model (even one as promising as coding camps) could be the magic bullet for all employers or all organizations.

The logic against one for all comes down to four main principles:

Success means something different to each employee

Some people say it's all about the diploma; others are purely about skills related to specific goals. The latter is going to be frustrated by degree requirements unrelated to those skills, meaning they might skip the whole pursuit, or worse!start a program and bail.

Success means something different to each employer or department

Hospitals need nurses to earn degrees to reach magnet status. Those same organizations likely have more immediate tech needs that could be delivered via non-degree or certificate. And a hospital is only one example. Any organization that has multiple disciplines (which, let's face it, is all of them) is going to have multiple education needs requiring multiple approaches.

Learning styles are never going to be the same for everyone

An online program would be great for parents who call child care a barrier to degree (fun fact: only 27% of people with children finish a degree in six years). But in one study, three quarters of Gen Z said they'd prefer to take classes in person. "It was the Gen Xers who gravitated most toward online training," wrote the study's authors on Harvard Business Review. The moral: a single platform is going to lose some important people.

Technology is always going to evolve

Coding camps opened a door to tech needs. But those needs have already broadened. "Many boot camps have not evolved beyond courses in basic web development," wrote the New York Times recently, "but companies are now often looking for more advanced coding skills." That doesn't mean the original camps are passe - it just means they need to be balanced with programs offering those more advanced skills. If you're connected to one single format, you're likely not going to be agile enough to find them.

The simplicity of one school may be tempting for HR departments trying to administer education programs themselves. It's one way DIY can fall short. Value comes from adult learners who earn skills. And just as for teens, the right program is often the lynchpin in whether an adult makes it to the finish. So a program that gives you choices has a lot of value.

Successful schools, wrote the Times about boot camps, "will increasingly be ones that expand their programs to suit the changing needs of employers."

More likely, successful employer educational programs will be the ones that are adaptable enough to fit the change needs of their people.  
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Written by: Jonathan Corke

About the Author

Jonathan Corke at Bright Horizons

As Senior Director, Product Marketing, Jonathan has spent the last decade working at the intersection of strategic HR and enterprise technology. He has learned a great deal about converting a talent management strategy into an operating plan through direct conversations with HR leaders and numerous industry surveys. These experiences have sparked a fascination with how leading employers create a better environment for their workforce, and how that environment drives consistent business performance. Jonathan holds an MBA from Clark University.