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Voices of the Global Community


Kenn Skorupa, Adult Learner Commission Chair

When we think of adult learners and how to approach them as admissions counselors, program advisors and instructors, several aspects of their adult status usually come to mind. Among these are the fact that adults play multiple roles in their lives, that they often have anxiety about returning to school and that many times they are experiencing some sort of life transition at the time they decide to return to school. One characteristic of current and prospective adult students that is often overlooked, particularly by the administration, is the fact that they are consumers and are generally looking for the most out of their time and money.

As educators, we don’t like to fashion ourselves as being sales personnel. If I wanted to get into sales, I would have gone into an industry where I could have actually made money. The irony is that when we, with our graduate degrees representing the university and all it has to offer, encourage potential adult students to go back to school to get a better job and make more money, the fact is that these adults are usually making more money than we are without a degree. So, if we really knew what we were talking about, we probably wouldn’t be having the conversation with the person in the first place.

But then again, money isn’t everything. The benefits of a college degree go way beyond the tangible aspects of time and money. But how do you convince a person so fixed on these commodities that they really will enjoy the process, that they will experience a great deal of pride and accomplishment and that their view of the world will be enlarged and enriched? For those people who do not enter your office believing these things, it is going to be a hard sell. And what about that change in perspective? It can be quite a difficult adjustment for some adults who achieve a good deal of personal growth in a relatively short time. “If a learner’s mate, friends, or coworkers are vested in particular ways of viewing the world, they may find it unsettling, at best, and threatening, at worst, to be challenged (by new) perspectives" (Taylor, Marienau and Fiddler, 2000).

This feeling of being threatened often presents itself during initial contacts with adult prospective students. The conversation goes a little like this. The student says, “You know, I don’t even need this degree. I mean, I have gotten along perfectly fine without it. It’s just a piece of paper.” At this point you feel an obligation to defend your background, your profession and the rest of the academic community. You nod your head and say, “Well... “ And if you are really in a surly mood, you say, “That’s true, but if you change your mind later, give us a call.” The reverse psychology thing usually works in this situation. Often they proceed to come up with 8 to 10 convincing arguments for why they should actually do it.

One reason for this reluctance to return to school has to do with their previous experience of the power struggle they have had with educators. And unfortunately, this power struggle still exists in some classrooms. Taylor, Marienau and Fiddler (2000) state, “most of us learned how to be educators in learning environments where the authority figure took responsibility for nearly every aspect of the process, what was done, how it was done, and how it was evaluated (including) who spoke, when, and to whom.” Few adults wish to invest a good deal of their resources into a situation that will not allow them the freedom to learn in a cooperative and interactive environment.

And then there’s the competition. How does your program compare to all others available out there? Well, that is a tough question. Often it is difficult just keeping abreast of all the available program options in your own institution, let alone those from other institutions. For adults, shopping for a college program is often no different than getting that new car, buying insurance or calling the travel agent. Josie Gibson, from New Mexico Highlands, tells how a recent prospect was looking for a hard-core sales pitch. “She wanted me to convince her to not attend the other schools rather than focus on what we had to offer,” Gibson said. In addition, adult students expect that you have all of the resources, staff and latest technology at your fingertips to provide instant answers and processing of requests. Little do they know about the budget realities that many academic institutions face. After all, what you are selling costs a fortune.

But what exactly is it that we are selling? It’s not a product. It’s not a service. What we are selling is an opportunity. We are offering them the opportunity to pay their tuition and then they have to do the work. While we can do everything possible to make their stay in our institution pleasant, seamless and supportive, they still must have the dedication, motivation and talent to create meaning and worth to what we are offering them. Dean Julian, Ed. D., N.C.C. from University of Pittsburgh, College of General Studies, says that adult learners have different psychological needs and perspectives than traditional-aged learners. “Adult students have a greater need for motivation, inspiration and guidance since they have more responsibilities than younger students whose primary responsibility is school,” Julian said. Julian goes on to say that adults respond better to low pressure and that trust is very important in the relationship with their advisors. Julian believes that many adult students have some degree of fear and stated, “When they verbalize their fears, they feel better about the investment.”

How else does this consumer mentality of adult students present itself? Janice Ford Freeman, from the University of Alabama, Birmingham says that you can see it in the attitudes these students have about instructors. Ford Freeman says that adult students will complain that the instructor is too easy or that they let the students out of class early or that the course content is poorly organized. She notes these complaints are seldom heard from traditional-aged students. In addition, Ford Freeman says that adult students often want to know as much as possible about a course and the instructor before taking it. Requests for syllabi, instructor ratings and the purpose of topics included in the curriculum are common from adult students.

And how does an advisor relate to adult students differently than traditional-aged students? “I am less directive with adults. I try to explain things in greater detail and find that my relationship with them is less formal,” Freeman said. Julie Fellers Hook, from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, agrees that adults are more consumer oriented. According to Hook, adult students research their decisions more, they often consider their time to be a more important investment than their money, they place greater emphasis on the reputation of the institution and they are much more assertive.

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), in a recent publication (2000), outlined their “Educational Principles That Work for Adults Who Work.” Included in their list of principles of what the institution should provide adult learners were the following: to overcome barriers of time, place, and tradition to create lifelong access; to address the career and life goals of adult learners; to provide an array of payment options; to assess skills acquired through the curriculum and experience; to provide multiple methods of instruction; to enhance student capabilities to be self-directed learners; to provide information technology to enhance the learning experience; and, to engage in strategic relationships and collaborations with employers and other organizations.

So, what does all of this tell us? How do we balance ”the customer is always right” with student responsibility? How do we provide the service that adults expect with resources directed primarily towards traditional-aged learners? How do we inspire trust, motivation and courage in our adult learners? How do we satisfy their desire to get the most they can for their investment?

First, we must become strong advocates for the direction of budgetary resources toward our growing population of adult students. And second is to remind yourself of how you felt the last time you were left on hold, the last time you were overcharged for something on your credit card or the last time you could not decide whether to invest your pension funds into one option or the other. Then take the time to listen to your students and remember to end each conversation with the question, “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

Kenn Skorupa
DePaul University


Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (2000). Serving Adult Learners in Higher Education: Principles of Effectiveness. Chicago: Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. www.cael.org

Developing Adult Learners by Kathleen Taylor, Catherine Marienau, and Morris Fiddler. Copyright 2000 by Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, CA.

Want to read more about these critical advising issues? 

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Cite this article using APA style as: Skorupa, K. (2002, September). Adult learners as consumers. Academic Advising Today, 25(3). [insert url here]


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