Last evening, I had the privilege of attending an adult learner “PHT Awards Ceremony” at my former institution. PHT stands for “Putting Him/Her Through.” It’s an opportunity for graduating adult learners to thank those who helped “put them through.” As each student came forward, shared their stories, and thanked the mothers/fathers, wives/husbands, children, faculty, and staff who made the difference in their successes, three themes emerged: courage, sacrifice, and gratitude.
These students had the courage to commit to earning a college degree while raising families, working part and full time, and facing their fears of whether or not they could be successful. They all shared a willingness to sacrifice—time with family, financial resources, and sleep—in order to realize their goal of earning a degree. And, finally, they expressed gratitude for the support they received from their families, but just as significantly the support they received from the faculty and staff at this institution and the resources that were readily available for their use.
Their personal stories reminded me that over 20 years ago, my first experience working with students in higher education was with adult learners: I was asked by my college’s president to take on the marketing and expansion of a Prime Time program for adult learners. In this new role, my first step was to meet currently enrolled Prime Time students and get to know them. What I learned was both inspiring and concerning.
What inspired me was the students’ uniform dedication to earning a college degree (finally!) at this time in their lives and their willingness to make the sacrifices necessary to reach that goal. What concerned me was that, for many of these students, there was a critical need for additional assistance (academic, financial, personal) that had to be addressed in order for the student to persist and succeed.
New study: Adult learners’ aspirations and need for support
Our new report Motivation of Adult Learners for Completing a College Degree (just published in March 2016) affirms that the critical issues of first-year adult learners are still the same as I observed years ago. These students are overwhelmingly committed to achieving the goal of earning a degree and, at the same time, expressing very specific needs and requests for assistance that must be addressed in order for them to succeed.
Let’s first take a look at the study’s findings showing adult learners’ high commitment to completing a degree, based on responses from over 5,000 first-year adult learners at the beginning of their studies in 2014 and 2015:
The strength of this commitment is remarkable, yet we know that motivation changes over time and that adult students may be just as vulnerable to forces of attrition as traditional-aged students. Attending to the areas in which adult learners are needing assistance, and ensuring that these students are connected with resources that meet these needs, will help more adults earn their college degrees in a timely manner.
Areas of need