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Kathryn Larson, University of Nebraska Omaha

Katie Larson.jpg “I am so excited to help you reach your goals. This is a wonderful teacher preparation program! But I have to warn you, it’s going to turn your life upside down.”

Mid-career adults entering or re-entering higher education face an exciting, confusing, and sometimes humbling experience. Those who support returning students will find much written on the need for program flexibility to help students complete their degrees quickly. But how do we help students adjust when a course of study is not designed for flexibility and speed? The transition to college life and expectations can be especially challenging to non-traditional students when institutional expectations seem rigid. As an educatio­n advisor at a metropolitan university, I work with many students who must get creative to start their new careers.

Attracting non-traditional students is a growing need for many institutions. Demographic shifts in traditional college-aged populations mean that supporting and retaining students 25 and older will be increasingly important (Gast, 2013). From 2007 to 2019, the number of college students in the U.S. aged 25 and older was projected to grow from 7.1 million to 9.7 million (U.S. Department of Education, 2012). Perhaps more than any other students, adult learners hope for a fast, flexible degree program. Snyder and Zona (2018) write that adult learners often seek “the shortest possible route to graduation.” In addition to speed, students like the flexibility of in-person and online options, room for electives to ease transfer issues, and the opportunity to be full-time or part-time.

Researchers have established best practices for retaining adult students. Gast (2012) writes, “Once recruited, adult students must be provided with specialized support services and have access to staff who recognize their unique needs and busy lifestyles.” However, practicum-based undergraduate programs that prepare students for careers like teaching and nursing may not be set up to honor a student’s busy schedule. These programs must meet curriculum and practicum requirements set by states or national accrediting bodies and may require strict schedules for practicum rotations. School-based practicum hours take place during the school day. The schedule is challenging for many students of all ages and backgrounds. Established workers who return to school often require a major life transition.

These 10 tips from research and practice offer strategies to support adult students who make the tough transition to a less-flexible undergrad program.

  • Relationships are key. As with all advising partnerships, the top tool for serving non-traditional students is building authentic, caring bonds. Lambert and Felton begin their 2020 book on student success with this striking phrase: “Relationships are the beating heart of the undergraduate experience.” This is doubly true with a vulnerable student facing tough choices.
  • Listen, then listen more. “There is no typical adult student” (Rans, 2014). As with all students and student groups, adult or returning students are not a monolithic body. They have varying levels of support and different barriers, so ask good questions to determine student needs. Snyder and Zona (2018) suggest an interview/intake form to help you get to know your students’ concerns, strengths and needs.
  • Communicate clearly. Consider sending a standard pre-meeting email that includes your program’s structure, highlighting commitments and responsibilities. Schedule changes and surprises are tougher for established workers, so sharing a program preview lets prospective students come to their first meeting with good questions.
  • Honor student skills and experiences. A teacher who previously worked as a para educator/teacher aide—or who has been on the parent side at a parent-teacher conference—brings a valuable viewpoint. Celebrate that! Advisors used to working with traditional-aged students may find mid-career student relationships awkward at first. Peters et al. (2010) write that “Advisors should feel confident about working with students who may possess career competencies and life experiences far more extensive than their own.” But building this confidence takes time. Acknowledge student expertise as adult learners and share your expertise and credentials as an advisor. These interactions can prompt reflection about the advising relationship. Does this relationship feel different than others? Why? Are there advisor-student power differentials to consider?
  • Be yourself. Many advisors are career changers or have juggled multiple roles, working or caregiving while taking classes. If there are experiences that you feel comfortable sharing, show your students these situations can be challenging without being impossible. In a list of tips for supporting adult learners, Snyder and Zora (2018) wrote “Share your story. Adult learners need to hear real experiences; your story should be authentic and persuasive in tone and content.” Advisors may have walked a different path than their mid-career students, but they have personal and professional expertise to support all students.
  • Plan for challenges early. For students in education programs for example, advisors might ask: Have you thought about what you’ll do when your practicum responsibilities increase? Can I send you information about the campus childcare center or the math learning center? One way to dig into challenges once a relationship is established is to ask students what they’re worried about. Perhaps you can explain a requirement or allay a fear.
  • Know a little bit about similar academic programs in your area. When a degree program isn’t a good fit for a prospective student, advisors can point out a nearby school that may work better. Often students appreciate that level of candor, and on researching the competition, they still may choose to attend your institution. When advisors want what is best for the student, it shows.
  • Advocate for change. Advisors may not design academic programs or determine their own workloads, but they can see problems and propose solutions. Advisors can model flexibility and access by offering phone or virtual meetings for busy students. And when advisors have a seat at the table, they should share their tough conversation. Departments that consult with advising set up their returning students for success.
  • Give students time to adjust after you deliver tough news. It is common for overwhelmed prospective students to say “I can’t do this.” Students who need to commit to major life changes often need time to think and to investigate all options. Be ready with referrals to financial aid and admissions so students can get expert advice.
  • Celebrate success. When mid-career students excel, take notice! Nominate returning students for scholarships, awards, or honors. This helps build a campus culture that celebrates the contributions and perspective of non-traditional students. When we serve returning students well, the campus and community win.

Kathryn Larson, M.S.
Assistant Director of Academic Advising
College of Education, Health and Human Sciences
University of Nebraska Omaha


Gast, A. (2013). Current trends in adult degree programs: How public universities respond to the needs of adult learners. New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education, (140), 17–25. https://doi-org.leo.lib.unomaha.edu/10.1002/ace.20070

Lambert, L. M., & Felten, P. (2020). Relationship-rich education: How human connections drive success in college. Johns Hopkins University Press. https://doi.org/10.1353/book.78561

Marques, J. F., & Luna, R. (2005, June). Advising adult learners: The practice of peer partisanship. Recruitment & Retention in Higher Education, 19(6), 5.

Peters, L., Hyun, M., Taylor, S., & Varney, J. (2010, September). Advising non-traditional students: Beyond class schedules and degree requirements. Academic Advising Today, 33(3). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Advising-Non-Traditional-Students-Beyond-Class-Schedules-and-Degree-Requirements.aspx

Rans, J. (2014, March). The resiliency of adult learners. Academic Advising Today, 37(1). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/The-Resiliency-of-Adult-Learners.aspx

Snyder, E., & Zona, L. (2018, March). The returning adult learner: Advising strategies to support their degree completion efforts. Academic Advising Today, 41(1). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/The-Returning-Adult-Learner-Advising-Strategies-to-Support-Their-Degree-Completion-Efforts.aspx

U.S. Department of Education. (2012). Federal Student Aid Strategic Plan FY 2012–16.  https://studentaid.gov/sites/default/files/FiveYearPlan_2012.pdf

Cite this article using APA style as: Larson, K. (2022, June). Supporting adult students: When returning to school requires major life changes. Academic Advising Today, 45(2). [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2022 June 45:2


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