Many roles compete for adult learners’ time and energy, Miller said. And their roles as employees, spouses or parents might take precedent over their role as students, she said. In spite of these competing priorities, the institution tries to retain them until they reach their goals — and earning a degree is not always the goal, she said.

To keep these students enrolled, officials need to understand what motivates them and what barriers they might encounter. Then it’s possible to enhance the motivators and reduce the barriers, Miller said.

For adults, motivators include:

  • Personal and professional advancement. This is often the trigger for these students to enroll in the first place, Miller said.
  • Social welfare. Some students want to enhance their ability to provide service to the communities in which they live.
  • Social integration. Students who feel they fit in on your campus are more likely to stay enrolled.
  • Independence and self-direction. Adult students are usually mature and have a sense of self, Miller said. They want to lead in determining what they will learn.
  • Practical learning. Busy students want to understand how what they are learning applies to their lives and their jobs.
  • Ability to share competence and experience. “The ones that feel they’re giving as well as getting are the ones we’re going to keep,” Miller said.
  • Respect from partners in learning. Adult students want to be treated well by fellow students, faculty and staff. They want to be treated as adults, not kids.
  • Personal contact with someone who cares. Adult learners want to know that someone on campus cares about them and their goals, Miller said. They don’t want to feel like just another number.
  • Challenging and engaging subject matter. Students like knowing that they are learning a lot and getting their money’s worth.
  • Opportunities to succeed. Small successes keep students moving toward bigger goals.

Barriers include:

  • Lack of time and scheduling problems. Adult learners juggle many competing priorities, and sometimes college is not number one.
  • Lack of confidence or interest. Adult learners might have failed before or might be alarmed by having to use computers.
  • Lack of support from family or friends. Some adult students may feel as if they’re going it alone, and that can be overwhelming.
  • Gap between expectations and reality. The more students know about what to expect, the better.
  • Negative past experiences with schooling. Adults might have previously dropped out because of problems they encountered.
  • Confusion about degree requirements. Adult learners need clear information about what they need to do to get where they want to be.
  • Concern about the cost of education. Not understanding ways to pay for college could prevent adults from enrolling.
  • Dissatisfaction with red tape. Adults won’t tolerate getting the runaround, Miller said.
  • Problems with child care and transportation. External factors can impede adult learners’ success.


Enhance motivators, decrease barriers for adult students

You know that adult students face special retention challenges that their traditional classmates do not. However, adults also arrive on campus with many more motivators than traditional-aged students. By enhancing motivators and decreasing barriers, you can ensure adult students’ retention, according to Cindy R. Miller, campus director of Columbia College-Kansas City. She suggested that you:

  • Provide realistic advising to establish students’ expectations.
  • Offer a comprehensive new student orientation. Make it an onsite event so adult learners meet others facing the same challenges.
  • Assist students when they need to work through the bureaucracy.
  • Provide frequent and meaningful communication and personal contact.
  • Institute ways to detect at-risk students before it’s too late to help them.
  • Reach out to students who are not enrolled for the current term.
  • Use virtual communication venues to entertain and inform students.
  • Offer convenient and flexible scheduling.
  • Ensure that instructors offer active learning opportunities to engage students.