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The Many Facets of Adult Students

University Park, Pa.— As labels go, “adult learners” is impossibly broad. One person who fits that description may have little in common with another. Such students might be 25 or 35 or 65, with different backgrounds, skills, fears, goals, schedules, and financial concerns.

The complexity of this vast and growing body of students was evident here at the Hendrick Best Practices for Adult Learners Conference on Monday. Educators from throughout Pennsylvania State University’s system gathered to share ideas on recruiting and retaining so-called nontraditional students. Amid increasing competition, several experts said, the university must become more creative—and nimble. And they insisted that Penn State’s 24 campuses must not adopt a one-size-fits-all plan for serving such students. After all, what’s true of students is true of Pennsylvania’s communities: Their needs vary.

Moreover, the needs of adult students vary within a given area. Ira S. Saltz, director of academic affairs at Penn State’s Shenango campus, described the challenge of serving three distinct groups. First, there’s a relatively small subset of working professionals, who are open to online courses and are not especially worried about their finances. They want evening and weekend classes.

Then there are the first-time college students. At Shenango, women who fit that description tend to be married, with rusty math skills and worries about paying for college. They seek daytime offerings but often miss classes for family reasons. At the campus, men who have not previously attended college are typically accustomed only to blue-collar jobs, and many have experienced long periods of unemployment. They might need a lot of remedial courses en route to a job, but they may have relatively few scheduling concerns.

Mr. Saltz recommended that colleges develop course rotations that ensure the availability of offerings in both day and night slots. Colleges, he added, must broaden their understanding of remediation: Students might require help not only with math, but also with basic reading skills, technology, critical thinking, and time-management strategies. And they might need encouragement to think of education loans as a good investment.

Finally, Mr. Saltz described the importance of creating a culture of learning among older students. Shenango has developed a peer-mentoring program for adult students, and is considering ways of providing online tutoring for them. “So there’s not that stigma,” he said.

And Mr. Saltz also suggested that colleges could send an important message to students who are anxious about how to balance their coursework with family commitments: “If you have studying to do, don’t run off somewhere to do it. Do it in front of your children.” In other words, studying might not seem like such a bear if it doesn’t require a trip to the library.

Paula Milone-Nuzzo, dean of the school of nursing at the University Park campus, suggested other ways of reducing students’ concerns about managing their time. “Prioritizing is huge,” she said. “Is my daughter’s recital more important than going to clinicals? All those things, when you roll them all together, amount to a lot of stress.” And so students in the nursing program now learn about stress management.

The program’s offerings have evolved to better serve an array of older students. For one thing, University Park created a second-degree program for aspiring nurses. “For years, we had students with a degree in biology who would come in and they would take three years to get a degree,” Ms. Milone-Nuzzo said. “That wasn’t a good use of anybody’s time.” The program also built an accelerated R.N.-to-B.S. program, which allows registered nurses to earn a degree in one year by taking intensive, seven-week courses.

Based on feedback from adult students, the program has also added more blended courses, with in-class and online components. Also in the mix is voice-over narration for PowerPoint slides, which allows students who miss a class to catch up. And there’s been more focus on expanding partnerships with local hospitals. “We realized that we have to bring course work into the workplace,” Ms. Milone-Nuzzo said. “It makes life so much easier for students, and it allows them to create a cohort.”

Amid the practical suggestions discussed on Monday, Avis Kunz, assistant dean for online education and outreach at the University Park campus, offered some big-picture advice. “You have to think of your student body as very different and diverse,” she said. That is, adult students might not have the same cultural knowledge that many 20-year-old undergraduates share.

To illustrate that point, Ms. Kunz described an online sociology course for which a professor at the university based an assignment on Joe Paterno, Penn State’s legendary football coach. “Surprisingly,” she said, “a lot of students didn’t know who Joe Paterno was.”

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