As many as 35 percent of students in college today are 25 or older. That translates to some 6.6 million students out of around 19 million in college currently, and their numbers are set to increase over the next several years.
While most college students in the 18-24 range are considered near-adults, students over the age of 25 are generally called adult students or adult learners. Many of them are pursuing a college education to upskill or to change careers and remain relevant in a society that is rapidly changing due to technology.
Older Adult Students Have Different Needs
There’s more to being an adult student than just age. They also tend to have children or be working jobs while earning a degree; they may also have other responsibilities, such as elder care.
A big challenge for adult students with jobs and those supporting families is that they can’t always be on campus like traditional college students. For this reason, they also have a lower threshold for “micro-frustrations,” like having to figure out endless forms and other bureaucratic hassles, writes Matthew Rascoff, associate vice provost for digital education and innovation at Duke University, at The EvoLLLution. On the other hand, just like regular college students, adult students benefit from collaborative learning and active learning and need college support for that even off campus.
Higher education institutions need to address these challenges, and technological tools — even some surprisingly simple ones — can go a long way toward enhancing the college experience for older students, says Brian Fleming, executive director of the Sandbox ColLABorative at Southern New Hampshire University.
Design Tech Support That’s Platform Agnostic and Up to Date
Colleges looking to provide technological support for adult students should not be wedded to one delivery platform.
“When Instructional Designers are designing courses, they should consider making their tools platform agnostic,” writes Julian Davis, senior digital learning adviser for Australia’s Queensland Rail, in a post for eLearning Industry. He notes that this isn’t easy, “but from an adult learner’s perspective,” this option needs to be considered.
“Think about an adult learner that simply uses Microsoft Windows...How would this affect them?” This can negatively influence access to learning tools, explains Davis.
Duke’s Rascoff writes that “It takes intentional design” to make education truly accessible for all ages. So, when investing in academic technology tools, “it may be worth finding solutions that can be customized to fit any student’s abilities,” writes David Hutchins, vice president of higher education and K–12 education for CDW•G, in EdTech.
At the same time, don’t automatically assume adult learners are not adept at using technology. In the consumer marketplace, retail and payment technologies are adopted at warp speed, and consumers, regardless of age, have adapted. Similarly, universities should make sure they’re not lagging.
“Tech literacy can always be a challenge, but with many adult learners who are tech literate, we’ve heard them say university systems are not up to speed with the consumer-grade experience we now expect in daily life,” says SNHU’s Fleming.
Using Tech to Stamp Out Microfrustrations
Typical college students have access to an array of advisers in different areas, including in academics, financial aid and career guidance. “A lot of advising within higher education is complicated and time-consuming,” which works fine if you’re on campus, says SNHU’s Fleming. Time-constrained adult students don’t have the bandwidth to attend all such sessions.
Similarly, for financial aid issues, colleges should allow digital signatures on forms and consultations by email or chat.
“Many academic departments require advisor meetings before a student can enroll in upper-level courses — an easy enough drop-by for traditional students, but a heavier lift for adult learners. Allowing virtual meetings, and making them available outside of regular work hours, keeps a requirement from becoming a barrier,” notes Rascoff. Individually, these examples might not seem like much, but microfrustrations “can add up, especially for adult learners who already have to find extra energy for school — squeezing in classwork during a lunch break or after kids have gone to bed at night,” notes Rascoff.