Peer Review

Adult Students: Meeting the Challenge of a Growing Student Population

Over the past several years, community colleges across the country have experienced substantial growth in enrollment. The economic downturn and accompanying job loss, coupled with the relatively low cost of attending a community college, have made our institutions a primary destination for many students seeking to earn a degree and prepare for a career. In fact, according to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), full-time attendance at US community colleges increased 24.1 percent between fall 2007 and fall 2009. Although some of the growth can be attributed to traditional college students choosing to begin their postsecondary education at the community college level, adult student learners have returned to our campuses in remarkable numbers. The shifting demographics of our population have forced community colleges to reconsider both their offerings and their delivery methods to ensure adult student learners receive the educational options and the ancillary support they need to succeed.

In fall 2010, St. Louis Community College in St. Louis, Missouri, (STLCC) enrolled 12,161 students over the age of twenty-five. This number represents 41.8 percent of the entire student body and an increase of 27 percent over the percentage of adult student enrollment in 2007, just three years ago. Additionally, the majority of this student population is under the age of forty (68 percent), and most of these students (94 percent), have attended at least some college in the past. Clearly these students, still in the prime of their working careers, are seeking to enhance or even alter their career paths. Although their educational goals may coincide with those of the traditional learner, the challenges of the adult learner are often distinctive.

So just how does a college or university address the dualistic challenge of serving returning adult learners while keeping pace with contemporary needs of the more traditional college student? STLCC has created a set of services that helps adult students transition back into the collegiate environment, programs that offer the flexibility that adult student often require, and teaching techniques that align most clearly with Malcolm Knowles’ (1984) adult learning theory.

Overcoming Initial Obstacles

Even more so than their traditional-aged student counterparts, adult students return to college with an incredible diversity of educational and life experiences. Still, in many ways, the needs of these learners, as well as the obstacles they face, are universal. Returning adult learners come into the learning environment with reasonably clear educational goals accompanied by murky expectations of how the learning experience has changed since their last exposure. Often a critical factor for ensuring student success is minimizing the effect that the simple passage of time can play.

For example, student advisers often discover that many returning adult learners may only faintly remember where or why they ended their initial quest for a degree. Transcripts from earlier courses may be unavailable or in a state of disarray. Often we find that a student may have initially withdrawn from college during a period of personal crisis that is reflected by a less-than-stellar academic record. However, STLCC has instituted administrative procedures that provide appropriate opportunities for academic forgiveness or a subsequent adjustment to a student’s grade point average. These policies can level the playing field for returning students with the ambition, if not the academic record, of any traditional college student.

Even the most promising adult students may suffer from being away from the academic environment for a prolonged period of time. All adult learners returning to STLCC after a three-year absence are required to retake a placement test to assess their need to for developmental classes, unless they have completed related college-level courses at any time. In some cases, well-developed lifelong skills (such as reading and writing) allow students to enter college-level courses. However, students often need refresher courses in mathematics before entering college-level algebra.

Additionally, new teaching methods and technologies may pose a problem for some adult students. While technology has been interwoven into the learning fabric of our educational system for a decade or more, many adult students may be less computer-savvy than their traditional counterparts and less comfortable in online or hybrid classes. Some must upgrade their knowledge and skills, either informally or in a classroom setting, in order to reach their long-term educational goals.

STLCC’s Cornerstone class offers students a three-credit-hour course that introduces them to concepts of critical thinking, information management, and more, while encouraging proficiency in basic computer usage. This course is recommended for all incoming students, but has been an especially helpful primer for adult learners who have been removed from an academic environment for some time.

Creating Optimal Learning Environments

Perhaps one of the more apparent differences between the adult learner and the traditional college student is that adult learners often present an exceptionally clear notion of what they are seeking from their institution. These students are also often more open to the many academic resources available to them than their traditional-aged peers.

Joanne R., a STLCC adult learner seeking an associate of arts degree before pursuing a bachelor’s degree in education, has taken advantage of every orientation, study session, and skill-building workshop offered at her campus. From “Learn and Earn” seminars where attendance is rewarded with a free lunch voucher to study sessions before finals, Joanne found the educational support system outside of the classroom nearly as instrumental to her success as a student as the coursework within.

Additionally, the growing diversity of educational delivery options available to all students—traditional and adult learner—has opened the door for students to learn on a faster track with a more personalized schedule. The inclusion of specialized training programs, once the exclusive territory of the proprietary career colleges, provides short-term, affordable training to students seeking a career change. STLCC offers a wide variety of employment-ready certificate and degree programs that students can complete in two years or fewer. Even students pursuing a traditional post-secondary education can take advantage of a growing number of evening and weekend courses that allow them to continue to work and care for a family while attending college.

Bridging the Generations

Inevitably, adult learners attending community college find themselves in the classroom with traditional-aged college students. Although some find this disconcerting, the disconnect is typically more social than academic. By presenting topics that are both relevant and contemporary, educators can transcend the students’ chronological divide and provide a meaningful learning experience for all ages. Furthermore, many adult learners may know more than the instructor on certain topics, and may possess life experiences that can enrich the classroom as a whole. Thus, the classroom dynamics have changed, with the most successful educators tapping into adult students’ body of knowledge.

Developmentally, adult learners often engage in “generativity” (Erikson 1980), a process of sharing one’s accumulated knowledge for the betterment of others. When joined with “identity development,” a developmental stage of traditional college students (roughly sixteen to twenty-five years of age), the outcome seems ideal, and it often is. Adult learners are encouraged to enhance basic course content with anecdotes from the working world, which less experienced students find meaningful (Vella 2002). Overall, both communities of students benefit from their exposure to one another. To this point, STLCC student Joanne R. said, “I have different frame of reference from most of the students in the class, but the dynamics have been positive, and I have felt very valued by my instructors and fellow students.”

ALP: A Comprehensive Model for Adult Learners

The clearest example of how St. Louis Community College attempts to meet the needs of returning adult learners who are seeking a general transfer associate’s degree is the Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) offered at the Florissant Valley campus. Over its ten-year existence, the program has enrolled nearly three hundred adult learners.

The ALP program is based on the tenets of “learning community” theory, and it requires an approach that includes an interconnected cohort of faculty and students. The class meets just one evening each week, allowing students sufficient out-of-class time to balance school, work, and family commitments. Content instruction happens through self-directed learning and via the Internet. The once-per-week class meetings allow for the interdisciplinary tackling of “essential questions” posed by the thematic clustering of courses.

The curriculum is designed to be delivered in semester-long, thematic modules that are fully integrated in design and delivery, rather than utilizing the typical linked-course approach. Delivery of instruction is completely interdisciplinary, with shared instruction and team teaching. Typically there are three to four faculty members in the classroom at all times, collaboratively delivering instruction, with each guiding the students through the lens of his or her own discipline. The design of the curriculum is also meant to establish relevance of material for the students, a common desire of adult students as articulated in the adult learning literature, as well as discovered in our internal student assessment.

Educational technology provides each student with twenty-four-hour access to course content, electronic media, and one another. Tools such as blogs and discussion boards allow students to upload and respond to content in real time.

Students earn their degree in twenty months (nine semesters). However, the program requires that enrollees be reasonably autonomous and technologically sophisticated, two requirements that correlate well with the adult learners’ own “intrinsic motivations” to learn and “self-directedness” (Knowles, Swanson, and Holton 2005). The program’s technological complexity allows for a degree of autonomy that appeals to these learners. Our students routinely cite the learning community and the curriculum design as the primary reasons for their high levels of satisfaction and academic success in the Accelerated Learning Program.

A good deal of refinement has taken place over the life of the program. The most recent example has been the addition of a dedicated counselor to respond to the personal counseling needs that we’ve discovered are unique to adult students. The counselor helps streamline the process of registration and ongoing enrollment, providing a valuable service for time-stressed students. All faculty members who teach in the program willingly advise and counsel the students on an ongoing basis.

While ALP is the grandfather of the STLCC adult-learner programs, other options exist for returning students as well. The Forest Park campus offers a two-year degree program via a rotating schedule of classes, all occurring on Friday evenings, Saturdays, and Sundays. The Meramec campus offers a Saturday Flexible Learning program. It features a number of three- to five-credit-hour general education courses taught in an eight-week block schedule with class held on Saturday mornings and a web-based portion that can be completed as the student’s schedule permits. For many adult students with full-time jobs, the ability to attend college on the weekend is a key component to completing their education.

Looking Ahead

Faced with the many positive attributes of the returning adult learner, colleges and universities must prepare to recruit and support this group. Institutions like St. Louis Community College understand that this type of preparation begins from the inside out with employee training and student services that are learner-centered and highly proactive. Programs that feature concepts like the Backward Design curriculum architecture of L. Dee Fink (2003) and the principles of adult learning theory highlighted in the writings of Jane Vella (2002) must be deeply infused into the academic culture.

Concurrent with those efforts must be initiatives that attract displaced and underemployed adult workers and transforms them into returning adult learners. Adult Information Sessions presented by STLCC’s Enrollment Management office allow interested adults to survey the wide array of degree and training programs the college has to offer—and the sessions focus on those programs that are most likely to interest returning adult learners. Attendees can also gather information on financial aid, speak with a counselor, or find out about program prerequisites or requirements. Community outreach is vital to encouraging and supporting our adult student population.

In addition, a primary goal of all colleges with a growing number of adult student learners must be to ensure that these individuals have been primed for a second encounter with college. St. Louis Community College attempts to meet that challenge. Through proactive new student advisement and opportunities for placement in classes that are appropriate for adult students of all levels of achievement, STLCC is well-positioned to help our adult learners embrace the college experience and succeed in their long-term educational goals. As one of the leading institutions in Missouri with a mission of providing higher learning to a diverse audience, we plan to continue to serve as a pacesetter and innovator in adult education.


Erikson, Erik H. 1980. Identity and the Life Cycle. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.

Fink, L. Dee. 2003. Creating Significant Learning Experiences. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Knowles, Malcolm S. 1984. The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species (3rd ed.). Houston: Gulf.

Knowles, Malcolm S., Richard A. Swanson, and Elwood F. Holton III. 2005. The Adult Learner. Burlington, MA: Elsevier.

Vella, Jane. 2002. Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Joseph Worth is the department chair and a professor of counseling at St. Louis Community College; Christopher J. Stephens is professor of communications and theatre, and coordinator of the Accelerated Learning Program at St. Louis Community College.

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