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Creating an Environment That Helps Adult Students Succeed

San Francisco — Adult students are an unrecognized minority group at traditional colleges. Not only are there fewer students who fall into that category, but the institutions have been set up to serve a different type of student. That’s the case two administrators at Mount Mercy University made here on Wednesday at a session of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers’ annual meeting.

The two officials—Colette Atkins, assistant dean of adult accelerated programs, and Jason Clapp, the registrar—described how they had worked together to meet the needs of older students who have job and family responsibilities on top of academic ones.

In the coming years, the adult-student population is projected to grow more quickly than the traditional-age one nationwide, Mr. Clapp said. “We need to be paying attention to that market.”

Mount Mercy started an accelerated program for working adults in 1997, and it has “just boomed in our community,” Mr. Clapp said. Today close to a quarter of the Iowa university’s enrollment is in that program.

The university has teamed up with a nearby community college that offers a similarly structured program to start students on the path to a bachelor’s degree. A number of local employers offer partial tuition reimbursement. More recently the university has started graduate programs for adult students on a similar model.

Nontraditional students face additional barriers to college access, and the speakers offered some ideas on how colleges can help mitigate them.

Some barriers are situational, they said. For example, older students often have family obligations. They may have to travel for work or be on a shift schedule. Limits of money and time are also concerns.

Colleges can help by running orientations that include older students’ families, offering on-site day care, and making sure there’s a quiet place to do homework later in the evening.

Financial aid can be the biggest hurdle, Ms. Atkins said, because students are eligible for federal aid only if they enroll in courses bearing a certain number of credits.

The university has tried to make its pricing clearer to the accelerated students. Rather than providing a discount off a published price, it offers them a reduced rate of $425 per credit (traditional students’ sticker price comes to $698 per credit). And when money is a particular problem, the university’s advisers will steer prospective students to start at the community college.

Institutional barriers are also of concern. The biggest one just might be course scheduling. Semesters are long, and most classes happen during the workday. Mount Mercy has created a block schedule in which classes are offered for five or 10 weeks, one night a week. Such schedules have created some operational challenges for the university.

They have also created more paperwork because not all of the adult students are comfortable using the university’s online-registration system. Some prefer to call up an adviser, who uses a paper form. “Our logistics,” Mr. Clapp said, “can’t keep us from doing what’s right for the student.”

The university would prefer to let adult students enter the program at any point in the year, but hasn’t been able to do so under financial-aid rules.

Some of the university’s traditional students want to take the accelerated courses, but they’re usually not allowed to. Younger students may not have the focus and maturity the schedule demands, Ms. Atkins said. “We are as flexible as we can be,” she said, “but I have to have something to tell a student no to.”

Mount Mercy has also set up Ms. Atkins’s office as a mini one-stop shop, helping adult students with all of their needs at one location.

Some solutions are basic. Like nearly every campus, Mount Mercy has limited parking. So the accelerated program takes place in a single building, near a parking lot that commuter students have cleared out of by the time the working adults arrive.

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