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Things you can do to help your adult learners navigate their way through the fall term

With the new school year just around the corner, now’s the perfect time to put yourself in the shoes of an adult learner starting college for the first time this fall.

Maybe you’re going after the degree you set aside after high school. Maybe you’re searching for a fresh start and a new career. Or maybe you want to show your kids and your family that you can do it, helping to build a better life for them all. Whether you’re 25 or 55, attending classes on campus or online, one thing is certain: You’re nervous. Excited at the future you see at the end of the journey, yes, but apprehensive too. Will you fit in? Can you hack it — the papers and projects and exams? And how will you juggle all the things, including job, family and everyday life?

While the fundamentals of college — lectures, reading, research, writing papers — are the same for anyone attending college, the overall experience and the types of support services needed can be vastly different between a 19-year-old traditional student and a 32-year-old adult learner. With that in mind, here are nine tips you can share with your adult learners — tips for helping them start their new term off right.

Tip #1: Attend orientation

Orientation is a chance for incoming students to meet faculty members, learn about campus resources, and talk to an academic advisor before registering for classes. While orientations are created for all new students, adult learners may be more reluctant to attend, thinking the events are just for students moving straight from high school to college to visit the campus with their parents.

That’s where a little personalization can go a long way. Consider sending a special message just to the adult learners on your roster, letting them know how important orientation is for getting the year off to a good start and encouraging them (and their families) to attend. This can be as simple as tweaking an existing email or creating an updated script for student volunteers to use when calling.

For your online adult learners, online orientation is where they will learn how the school’s learning management system (LMS) works and how they will interact with faculty, advisors, support staff and their fellow students. Online orientation is designed to answer questions and help learners ensure they’re comfortable and ready to go on their first day of class.

Tip #2: Set clear goals

Making the choice to return to school is no small decision. Your learners have given it a lot of thought, discussed it with family and co-workers, considered the financial implications, and come up with a host of positive reasons for putting in all the work. Once school begins, it is easy to get thrown off course. That’s why it’s important to set clear goals up front, and have a game plan for achieving those goals. The best place to start is by encouraging adult learners to ask themselves some questions:

  • Why am I returning to school?
  • What types of careers tie in with the major or program I’m enrolled in?
  • How long will it take me to complete my degree or credential?
  • Does my school give me any credit for life experience in my field?
  • What’s my plan for juggling work and home life with school?
  • Do I have a designated space at home for studying or attending Zoom meetings if I’m taking class online?
  • Do I have a network of support that can help me along the way? My family? My co-workers or boss? Friends?
  • What am I going to sacrifice — such as recreation, entertainment, downtime and so on — in order to fit “going to college” (and all that entails) into my life?
  • How quickly do I need to finish school in order to meet my goals and stay within my budget?
  • Am I willing/able to take more course hours to reach my goals sooner? Or do I need to go slowly, knowing that could impact my budget and keep school as part of my life for longer?

Once you walk through these questions with your learners, you can learn more about their core values and their specific situation, enabling you to support them in the areas where they most need it.

Tip #3: Financial aid is for adult learners too

Adult learners tend to think of financial aid as something seniors in high school apply for. The reality, however, is that adult learners are also eligible for financial aid — including grants, scholarships and student loans. And here’s even better news: when adult learners apply for financial aid, it will be based on their income — not their parent’s income, which is the figure younger students have to use. This means they could very likely be eligible for additional financial aid as an adult learner. Along with funding tuition, fees, books and other school-related necessities, financial aid can also cover non-academic expenses. This could be used to pay for childcare, for example, if your learner now needs help caring for their child during the day while attending school. Or if they need to reduce work hours in order to fit school into their schedule, financial aid may be an option to cover that as well.

Tip #4: Connect to campus resources

College campuses have a wealth of resources available to students — both on campus and online — yet many students fail to take advantage of these services... or even know they’re available. Start by seeing if your institution has an office dedicated specifically to adult learners. If they do, encourage your students to make the most of what they have to offer — everything from grant and financial aid information to time management strategies, free tutoring and mental health support.One of the best resources for the adult learner is the career counseling center and its staff of student support professionals focused solely on career. If you’re not sure about their program of study or branch of a certain major, they can help. Ditto if your students are looking for help with internships, apprenticeships and networking in their chosen field of study. The career services’ goal is to help them transition into a rewarding and lucrative career.

Tip #5: Brush up on the basics

Let’s say your learner wants to move into a career in the sciences, but they're a little rusty at math. Or they tell you they could use a refresher on how to write a paper. This is where you can direct them toward any student success mini-courses or workshops your school offers — short programs designed to help adult learners get back into the student mindset. These courses are typically free and scheduled either during the summer or just before classes begin in the fall. For learners who feel like it’s been a long time since they did coursework — and all the reading, writing and homework that goes along with it — these workshops or classes can be the prep they need.

Tip #6: Tackle time management

As any learner will tell you, their life is already busy. Very busy. Adding college to the mix takes serious advance planning. Encourage them to invest  in a weekly planner and find time to map out each week. Have them start by blocking out their class times and note important dates — when papers are due or exams will take place, for example. Next, they should add in their work and family must-do obligations. The final step is to have them find blocks of time when they can study, and write those times down with specific ways of studying for each entry — reviewing class notes, reading assignments, making flashcards, test prep and so on. They’re less likely to procrastinate — or forget something — if it’s written down and spelled out in front of them.

On a related note, it’s also a good idea to create a family calendar that includes all key deadlines. This lets everyone know their schedule and gets family members in the habit of knowing when the learner needs quiet time for studying.

Tip #7: Prioritize tasks

With adults leading full (and sometimes chaotic) lives, there are days when everything seems like it has to happen now. There are six chapters of reading, a test on the horizon, two recorded lectures to watch, plus the car needs to go in for service, the refrigerator is empty and the boss is going on vacation, leaving them in charge of inventory. It can’t all happen at once, so the trick here is to prioritize.

Try going through this simple exercise with your student. First, ask them to create a to-do list that includes everything they need to handle at home, work and school. Next, have them prioritize the tasks by importance and urgency, moving less urgent and less important tasks to be tackled later. The Eisenhower Matrix, named after President Dwight D. Eisenhower, is an easy and visual way to help them prioritize, getting them in the habit of putting each task in one of four quadrants: Do First, Schedule, Delegate, Don’t Do. This simple activity helps learners focus on what’s really important now, and what can wait for later.

Tip #8: Maximize available time

Time is our most precious commodity — and that’s true even before attending college enters the picture. For adult learners new to school, once they add lectures, homework, projects and exams to the mix, time becomes even harder to come by. So it’s important for them to budget their time wisely, just as they budget their money. One way to do that is to have them look at common ways they spend time today, and consider a shorter, time-saving alternative. For example:

  • Lengthy phone calls vs. sending a quick email or text
  • Running errands vs. ordering online
  • In-person meetings and appointments vs. a Zoom or phone call

According to a report from Datareportal, the average working-age internet user now spends more than 2.5 hours each day using social media platforms. Think of all the things a college student (or any of us) could get done with an extra two-and-a-half hours each day! Checking and connecting via social media is fine. But just be aware that for many of us, it quickly turns into a form of procrastination.Which leads us to another time-saver — working ahead. Learners need to know that if they find themselves with an extra 30 minutes here and there, they should  use that time to their advantage and work a bit ahead. Maybe they can read a few more chapters or do the outline for their paper a little early. This will help provide them with some much-needed breathing room down the line.

Tip #9: Remind them to breathe... and remember why they’re doing this

Once the bell rings and your learner is sitting in a lecture hall or interacting via Zoom, school and everything that goes with it can quickly get tough. And making the decision to return to school might mean temporarily giving up some of the things they love — like sleeping in or spending extra quality time with family. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel. And taking care of themselves is just as important as taking care of family, work and school. So encourage them to try and carve out some time each week to do something fun, something they really enjoy. Remind them to think of it as necessary self-care that will allow them to excel at everything else going on in their life. Whether it’s going for a walk or doing some gardening, “me time” can give the body, mind and spirit a chance to slow down and relax, even if it’s just for a short while. Relieving stress is a challenging assignment when you’re an adult learner, but one they need to ace.

And remind them that when they bump into obstacles or hit a bad patch — and that happens to us all — they should take a minute to remember why they’re doing this. Have them check in with their “why” for going back to school and tap into that for motivation.


Support that empowers the learners you work with

Supporting adult learners begins well before the first day of classes. Being proactive with support — including sharing tips found throughout this blog post — can help put learners more at ease and prepare them as they set out to achieve their educational and career goals. As a student support professional, you understand the challenges and obstacles that lie ahead — as well as the reward at the end of the journey.

Meet Sharon

Nurse Sharon Seales Reid decided to go back to school to get a bachelor’s degree in healthcare management. Facing health challenges like double pneumonia, migraines and COVID-19 couldn’t stop this dedicated adult learner from pursuing her goals. Find out how coaching helped communicate with school administrators and her workforce talent program manager to come up with a solution to stay on track and graduate.

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