Engaging Older Adult Students On Your Campus

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Engaged students are more likely to persist in completing their degrees. But if your traditional efforts are only attracting traditional-aged students, what can you do differently to help your older adult students? What should we know and do differently to engage these students? Read the 8 tips I suggest for a more involved and engaged nontraditional student population.

Engaging Older Adult Students on your Campus

College students today are increasingly nontraditional, older adult students. We can no longer assume that our incoming class will only have students between the ages of 18 to 24. More and more adult students are starting or returning to college to complete degrees. I am reminded of one of my favorite students when I worked at a small college in Boston.

Elise, nearly a decade older than her peers, worked part time as a dental assistant and was completing her dental hygiene degree as a full-time student.  She would start studying at 6 am, when the campus center opened and would return after work to study until midnight. I eventually hired her to work part-time as a campus center manager, so she could get involved in our office and use her time at the desk to study, allowing her to cut-down her part-time hours off-campus. It was a win-win situation for all of us.

Involving her, and her peers, was an important way to not only retain them but also have them enjoy their time as students. I’ve learned that students we find at-risk don’t want to just be retained, but also learn how to balance their student experience with their career expectations. Below are some ideas I have seen work to engage older adult students throughout the campus.

Eight Ideas You Can Implement On Your Campus to Engage Older Adult Students

We know that engaged students are more likely persist to completing their degrees. But if our traditional efforts are only attracting traditional aged students, what can we do differently? What should we know and do differently to engage these students?

I will show the top eight ideas that you can put into action that will help you meet the needs of this population of students.

1.      Get to know this population on your campus

It seems like an obvious start, but it’s the best place to start. Are these students mostly enrolled in similar degree programs? In the same college or school? Do these students work full-time or part-time? How many have children?

It really is as simple as asking your older student population to tell you who they are and what they want or need to succeed.

In order to engage your adult student population, try to learn as much as you can from Institutional Research or the Registrar, or the Admissions office. Or if appropriate, send out your own survey to gather this information. Once you know who these students are, you can provide workshops and trainings for this group of students they are more likely to attend.

2.      Identify a campus resource for this population

I worked at a small college, with less than 1500 students, so we didn’t have many population-specific offices. But we would identify ourselves to older adult students during Orientation programs as a specific resource when classes began. I would then find myself meeting individually with students or find that I was referred to by other staff and faculty. This was usually a good starting point to directing students to the resource they needed or just being a sounding board for adjustment issues.

I always make sure that students know that my door is always open for them.

Having someone who understands and will advocate for this population of students helps them feel heard when issues come up. And they do come up. Make sure you introduce yourself either in person or have a clearly available website found with common tags that students will use when searching your website.

3.      Create a commuter lounge

When meeting older adult students for the first time, I used to ask where they studied when they arrived on campus. Overwhelmingly, the common answer was in their cars. Once we opened a commuter lounge, open 12 hours a day, we began to see more and more of our adult students stop by earlier and earlier in the day than when their classes began. Because they didn’t live on campus, they weren’t used to exploring the campus for ideal study spots.

We learned that just inviting them to a commuter lounge with a fridge, coffee machine and a clean toilet was enough to show the basic comforts we gave to our residential students. Soon, we learned that we could do outreach directly to them, face to face, rather than by social media and emails, which were ignored until late in the day.

Even if you don’t have the resources for a stand-alone lounge, you can identify commuter pit-stops. Put together a map of lounges located across campus and what you can find in each space. Just helping locate a new study spot when your favorite one on campus is taken can be a big help!

4.      Plan social events during early evenings or weekends in commuter friendly venues

Not all adult students will have the time and resources to take classes during the 9 am to 5 pm day. They often work full-time or part-time, and come to the college right before their first class begins. Ask your student programmers to hold programs during this time, near the commuter parking lots, to encourage students to come out of their cars or the commuter lounge for a low-key, engaging program.

If you give students what they want and need where they are, they can and will make time for that!

The Commuter Life office at Montclair State University (NJ) has developed a calendar that is geared toward commuter student involvement. They use golf carts to move around the parking lot to find commuters, to station themselves at the top of the stairs commuters take to reach the middle of campus. Not all programming requires hours of commitment and their students feel engaged!

5.      Make traditional, weekend or late-night programming family friendly when possible

Recent studies on non-traditional students show that 25% of this population has children. With the competing priorities that parents face, why not make your program family friendly? For instance, have a family tent at Homecoming. In my last job working in an activities office, we found Homecoming the best time to bring out all our unused craft supplies – kids were the perfect audience for the supplies and helped us clear out the closets!

A few crayons, some glue and glitter and you have the best kids zone for your Homecoming tents!

Other ideas: A G-Rated comic for one of the night-time programs, perfect for teens. Partner with the campus pre-school for childcare, so parents don’t have to divide their focus.  And any DIY program is usually perfect for children of most ages – and at my last college, were some of the most popular on campus. Wel also found that having adjustable tables, that went from kids height to adult height were useful when having a mixed DIY audience.

6.      Invite students to present in class or workshops as ‘experts’

One of the advantages that older adult students have when starting a degree or returning to finish one is that they have work experience that traditional age students rarely have. Why not ask a returning to be a guest or featured speaker for a student worker orientation? Ask them to talk about how they made the most of their experiences, what they learned working on a team or solo, or whatever else they might know about. Older students have cultural capital they might not feel applies, but when asked and coached can become a valuable asset to younger adults.

7.      Be flexible with summer or start of class training dates when possible

As shared earlier, a quarter of adult students have children. So competing deadlines and priorities often exist at the start of the semester when kids go back to school for the semester and when most college offices hold trainings and workshops. While many offices approach student engagement from a ‘we treat everyone equally and fairly’ students with real competing priorities may not feel the same.

What if we moved some of our trainings to on-line videos and quizzes that adult students could study on their own? Or we held most of the trainings on weekends rather than during the weekday afternoons? Adult students who do want to get involved should be treated with the same equity we would afford other students who often need accommodations, like student athletes. Personally, I found that moving some of the mundane policy training to a self-directed quiz freed up hours of training time and reduced the need for commuters to return to campus for training they could do on their own.

8. Hire students as student staff managers

One of the benefits of working with adult students is helping them capitalize on their real-life experiences. Many return to college with work experience, but may not have management experience as of yet. Why not work with them on developing these skills as a student staff manager?

I have found that providing on-campus employment, even for a semester, will change how adult students use other on-campus resources. They also know and understand work-place responsibility and can draw on past experiences to help other staff members develop these skills. Plus these students allow you to create these mid-level manager positions that can help you manage large staff teams. This is who I was able to use Elise’s experience among other older adult students I have hired.

Scene from the movie Mean Girls with Amy Poehler with the text "I'm not a regular manager, I'm a cool manager" over the picture.
Your older adult students can capitalize on manager training that also takes advantage of their prior work experience. Plus on campus employment may help them manage their off-campus commitments!

Final Thoughts

A couple of final thoughts about engaging older adult students. One thing I had to learn to do was talk about college as a personal journey. Many adult students are part-time students, juggling courses with many other commitments and referring to college as a four-year experience can be defeating. If we want students to feel connected, we need to speak to their realities. With these competing realities, sometimes adult students will need to step out for a semester or year. They will need time to deal with family or work issues outside of classes. Always make sure they feel invited back when they can give their time and resources again.

One of my favorite memories was meeting Elise’s family when she graduated from college. She pointed to me and said that I was the one who helped her get involved in college. I had to disagree with her and point out that her involvement changed me. I learned more working with students like her. And that I would remember her whenever I worked with adult students again.

Online Resources for Commuter Students

National Clearinghouse for Commuter Programshttp://www.wiu.edu/qc/nccp/

ACPA Commission for Commuter Students and Adult Learnershttp://www.myacpa.org/commcsal

NASPA Off-Campus and Commuter Student Services Knowledge Communityhttps://www.naspa.org/constituent-groups/kcs/off-campus-and-commuter-student-services

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About Post Author

Joseph Rios, EdD

I am Joseph Rios and I believe that leadership is an expression of our values
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