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A mother in graduation regalia smiles at her son.

Colleges and universities are turning to an older student population to boost enrollment ahead of a decline of traditional-aged college students.

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One of the looming concerns of higher education is the demographic cliff: the number of traditional college-aged students is set to peak in 2025 and then decline dramatically over the next several years. Beyond this, fewer 18- to 24-year-olds are choosing to enroll in college, leading institutions to consider an older audience to boost enrollment.

Mike Krause serves as the senior adviser for the John M. Belk Endowment and currently leads North Carolina’s NC Reconnect program, which looks to support institutions in re-enrolling stopped-out adult learners to reduce the number of learners with some credit but no degree. Krause, who was a student veteran and adult learner himself, addressed the needs of adult learners and the current landscape of how higher ed can better serve adults.

Inside Higher Ed: We’re seeing adult learners buck enrollment trends—seeing them enroll at higher rates than others. But who is the adult learner of today? And why are they enrolling in higher education?

Krause: For my experience, when we talk about adult learners, one really important caveat on the front end is I am not necessarily talking about an age band. That being said, they are typically in their mid-30s. If you were to do a broad demographic average, I tend to approach adult learners in my work much more about their ability to file a FAFSA independently.

I am absolutely guilty that, for years, we were thinking 25 to 44, 25 to 44. And the reality is, you miss a lot of students who may be 20, but they can file a FAFSA independently and are absolutely adults.

With that being said, we’re talking about somebody in their mid-30s. We’re talking about somebody who, from my own experience, and I do think the data bears this out, is looking at higher education [and thinking] less about obtaining a credential and more about improving their workforce prospects.

And that, you know, certainly I don’t know that that was the foundation upon which most colleges and universities were founded on. I think we’re in an evolution state away from “I need to get a degree” to “I need to get skills.”

And that being said, oftentimes getting those skills involves acquiring a degree along the way, but what I’m seeing every day in my work at the Belk Endowment is the adults are coming in chiefly to get a better job and better skills.

Inside Higher Ed: You mentioned higher education wasn’t built for the adult who might not want a degree or a certificate. Why is that? And what are those challenges … the friction between the institution and the learner when the institution is not serving the learner and the way they might expect or want?

Krause: Yeah, I’d actually go a step further, and I would say higher education was not built for adults.

In the history of American higher education, it’s pretty clear.

But, you know—some important things that happened post–World War II with the GI Bill—I don’t know that American higher education ever moves past where it had been [in the] prewar era. With the advent of the community colleges and junior colleges in the ’60s, I think we began to see a tilt towards adults. But even at our most, I would say, adult-friendly institutions in America, if you dig just below the surface, you’re going to find vestiges and structures that are absolutely in place because they were in place at universities in the 1930s.

I’m talking about 16-week semesters, I’m talking about attendance policies that do not work for working adults or adults that have children, talking about the fact that libraries and student support services, again, even at very adult-friendly campuses, close at 4 [p.m.].

I don’t think American higher education was built for adults, and I think the evolution that’s happening right now is important, necessary, and I’m impatient for it. Much of what needs to be modified has to do with the higher education–industrial complex and has to do with the structures we have in place that, to the end of your question, what happens when higher education doesn’t serve adults? Well, in my own experience—I was an adult learner; I did not go to college after high school, I joined the military. And I will tell you that when you show up as a mid-20s veteran going into college, you have a pretty low patience margin for “Hey, go to the bursar’s office,” and then you do the scavenger hunt.

First off, what is the bursar? Still unclear. But you go to bursar’s office and they say, “Oh, also, you’re going to need to go back to admissions,” [and] you go to admissions: “You’ve got a hold.”

I tend to believe—from my own experience, but really, just from what I’ve seen the last 17 years in higher education policy—is that adults really aren’t going to do that too many times. They might make one trip, but the second, third trip, I think we just risk losing them.

Inside Higher Ed: You mentioned an evolution. Where do you see institutions evolving or starting to make that shift towards the adult learners?

Krause: I see it happening very much post-pandemic. I think the pandemic accelerated some things. What I am seeing happening is the move towards one-stop shops, which, to be clear, many universities and colleges have been doing that; [I] would say the last 15 years, we saw the emergence of the student one-stop, but I’m seeing those become more ubiquitous.

I’m also seeing, so proud of some of the community colleges we’ve gotten to work with in North Carolina, who are like, “When we do an adult-oriented event, it starts at 6 p.m. And that’s the only time that we’re going to be able to get them in. Furthermore, when they come onto our campus, this is where the childcare facility is. And oh, by the way, here’s dinner, right? Because we know that your kids have to eat.”

I’m talking about Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem. I’m seeing a lot of practical things happen, that, if you were to share with the average business leader that’s not in higher ed, they would be like, “Well, yeah.” But you know, I think maybe we’ve been slow to learn. But I’m really heartened by the fact that those things are happening now, and I think they’re happening at scale.

Inside Higher Ed: You’ve talked a little bit about the support services and how we need to reach students outside the classroom. But even in academics, there has been a shift towards, like you mentioned earlier, upskilling, reskilling, offering different kinds of credentials and degrees to attract the adult learner. Where do you see that next evolution when it comes to curricula and the academic side?

Krause: I will fully admit that I have a lot of hope for credit for prior learning … and this is one in which I think there are a lot of colleges leading the way on this and productive ways. The University of Louisville is one—Dr. Matt Bergman and the work that he does up there that I have my eye on, which is understanding that if the fundamental role of college is to equip you for whatever you’re going to do next in life and equip you with skills, it’s very appropriate that we recognize when skills you have gained outside of college may fulfill a credit requirement.

And that’s what I’m looking for inside the classroom in the next five to 10 years that I think we may look back and say, “How did we ever, ever ask someone who had been a police officer for 10 years to take criminal justice?”

I think we have done that over the last several decades; I think it’s happening less frequently now. I also think that there’s certain jobs where that feels very intuitive—like criminal justice—but we should really be pushing out—I think of the work here that the CAEL team does, at the Center for Adult and Experiential Learning—folks that have worked in retail, they understand HR.

We should absolutely be finding the modalities to assess, of course—this has to be done rigorously. And I think it needs to be driven by faculty. But I think there’s a way for us to get there inside the classroom. The other thing I would love to just highlight that has to happen inside the classroom is lived experience matters. And having our faculty members who were adult learners help bring their colleagues along to understand, hey, you know, not everybody goes to college right after high school. And not everybody takes the path into academia. And this is what I think we could do as faculty members to change how that classroom looks to help adult learners feel a little more welcome. And a little more like they belong.

Inside Higher Ed: Where do you see that need for a student voice … to have a seat at the table and to be contributing to these conversations about institutional policies and mission and how we’re serving students?

Krause: It is absolutely a central and emergent need that we be talking to adult learners, before we asked, but let’s talk to them before we decide what they need and what will help them succeed.

I’m seeing that happen in several colleges I work with. I think that’s really important when I begin working with new colleges. In the work that I’m doing currently with NC Reconnect, one of the first things we ask presidents to do is “Hey, could you get together an adult learner focus group?” I have sat in multiple [of] those over the last decade; I was an adult learner, and I still leave those every single time having picked up just one more thing we can do to help adult learners transitioning and ultimately [moving] through higher ed.

Inside Higher Ed: Is there something top of mind that you’ve learned or that an adult learner has said that you were like, “I never would have guessed this unless you had shared this with me?”

Krause: I think that, hearing first-hand about adult learners and absence policies is always a really good reminder.

If you have made the decision as an adult to go to college—and the data that we’re working with currently in North Carolina bears this out—if we can get you through the first couple of weeks, you’re going to succeed.

I think about classes that have the “three absences and you lose a letter grade” policy. Certainly, we should take attendance seriously; accreditors require it. But I hear all the time from adult learners like, “Just because I miss class, because I had to work a double,” or “My child was sick, that does not mean that I’m not engaged.”

There’s a president in North Carolina, Blue Ridge Community College, that is a really great example of asking her faculty to approach adult learner absences the same way they, as faculty, approach missing a class, which is to say faculty do miss classes sometimes, right? And you say, “Hey, guys, you post on Blackboard, do these readings, and we’re gonna catch up,” because life happens.

The question that she posed is “Are we extending that same grace to adult learners who, college and higher education, as they’re attending, is central in their life, but it’s not the only thing they have going on.”

Inside Higher Ed: Something else I wanted to touch on was re-enrolling stopped-out learners. That’s a huge population; we know that there are so many students who have no degree, but they have some college. So what does it take to find those learners and what are they looking for to re-enroll and get back into higher education?

Krause: This is a passion currently. This is the center of our work in North Carolina right now around NC Reconnect. First you need to know who they are, and that’s done at the institutional level, right?

Every institution in America should have the capability to go into their student information system and be able to pull that Excel spreadsheet of these X number of learners enrolled. They are FAFSA independent, thus they are adults, and they did not complete.

Step one is the will. What you need to reach adult learners who’ve stopped out is a president or some other person on that campus who’s willing to ask, “Wait, what about our students who didn’t complete?”

I heard a president say not long ago that the paradigm shift is really important around not going to the adult learner and saying, “Hey, we know that you didn’t succeed here.” The way to say it could be, “Hey, we know we did not succeed in helping you graduate. Will you give us a second chance?” And that’s verbatim from a president. And I thought that was really important. So step one is the will. Step two is the capability set.

I don’t think the call center approach works. I think we all get called every day by lots of people and do not answer. And we all get increasingly spam texts. We do not respond.

What InsideTrack does is just so personally linked. It’s a reach out to say, “Hey, Mike, this is John. I’m working right now currently with X Community College. Would you be willing to hop on the phone and talk about coming back? I see here that you’re actually within nine credits of graduation. Let’s talk.” That is a wholly different outreach than “Reply 1 to this text.” I do worry that engaging with stopouts in that way is not productive.

I think you’ve got to have will, I think you’ve got to have the capability set, but three, and maybe the most important thing, is you have to have a campus that is transformed from where they left.

If that adult comes right back to the place that things didn’t go great during their first attempt—I don’t think it’s going to lead to enrollment. I think they’re going to instantly sense, “Yeah, this didn’t work the first time, either. I really don’t want to come back.”

But if you do have that environment where like, “Whoa, this is different.” We’re talking about course offerings that are flexible. “Eight-week semesters? Oh my gosh, we didn’t have eight-week semesters before.”

These really tactical alterations that send a message like, “Hey, you can finish here.” And all the better if when they come back, they only deal with one or two people that are adult learner reconnect navigators. That to me, those three components, I would tell every higher education leader in America, please run the query this afternoon. It shouldn’t take long. How many enrolled but did not complete and start there.

Let’s start with the adults that they tried, and with one outreach, we may be able to bring them back. What a redemptive story for the college to be able to say, “No, we didn’t succeed with them the first time, but we did the second.”

Inside Higher Ed: Not every institution is looking to completely reorient services toward the adult learner, but every institution can take strides to make their services adult friendly. I wanted to learn from Purdue Global, the online arm of Purdue University, which serves a majority adult audience. Purdue Global launched student success coaching for their learners in 2023, automatically assigning each student a coach who assists with students’ life skills and navigating the university. I sat down with Ashley Flood, who serves as a student success coach manager, to learn more about their work.

Flood: So a little bit about my role: I work with a team of incredibly skilled success coaches who meet with students online to create individualized success plans that fit the student’s unique needs.

During these sessions, the coaches will assess the root cause of the student’s struggle, and a lot of the times we find that students are struggling with something outside of the classroom that’s inhibiting their ability to be successful within the classroom. Many times in these cases, we find that students have a basic needs insecurities of some kind: food, shelter, clothing, etc. And it’s no secret, Ashley, that adult learners face many challenges balancing work, family, school. So our job is to reduce some barriers for our students’ path to graduation.

Inside Higher Ed: You mentioned some of the challenges for adult learners. Can you talk a little bit about that? And what do those look like beyond basic needs?

Flood: So a lot of the times we find that students are struggling balancing the responsibilities that they have. A lot of them are working full-time jobs, they are going to school on the side, they have a family that they’re taking care of. Half of our students are first generation, and so we find that many students don’t know what questions to ask or even what resources are available to them.

Our coaches are really working hard at making sure that the student is knowledgeable and educated on what resources are available to them and then providing those students with those resources in the moment. The main areas of concern that we see are time management, academic needs, basic needs and personal well-being, which are all in accordance of what we see in the realm of higher education as well. Our coaches, again, are working to uniquely assess the student situation and then figure out what individualized resources they can provide for them.

Inside Higher Ed: Can you talk a little bit more about that relationship between the coach and the student? What does that look like in an average conversation? What does the workload look like for a case manager?

Flood: I love that question, because it just it comes back to what we know about people in general and that people crave belonging and they crave that relationship piece. Our coaches know that, and they are working to establish rapport and a relationship first and foremost with that student.

Our coaches have cohorts in which they are working to get the students in the door to meet with them for success coaching services. Our cohorts can range anywhere between 300 to 500 students in a success coach’s cohort. From there, the coach works to get the student in the door, and then they work on creating an individualized success plan for that student. So again, assessing the root cause.

During that session, the coach will come up with a quick win for the student, which is a small task that the student is able to accomplish right then in there in that meeting. Hopefully, this gets their productivity ball rolling, so that they leave the meeting with something tangible and feel inspired and empowered to go about their day and maybe tackle a few more tasks like that.

A couple examples of quick wins are sending an email to their faculty member or turning in an assignment that may have been late. And so little things like that can help spur the productivity ball to get rolling. That’s really what we want to do.

Inside Higher Ed: I love that idea of a quick win, because I think sometimes these issues can seem daunting to the student—there’s an anxiety of just, how do I even start to tackle this issue? I want to talk a little bit more about how you’ve seen coaching help students, obviously in these little wins. But when it comes to their belonging, their persistence, their retention, what are some of those outcomes that you’ve seen in your work?

Flood: So being such a new department, to give you a little bit of background on that, our executive director was hired in 2022, and our first coaches came on board in early 2023. So last year was a big year of building for us. Now we have 22 success coaches and three other managers, so we have grown a lot.

In terms of our persistence metrics, we haven’t been able to really see those effects yet, just because the coaching team is so new. And so we really focus our efforts on looking at the outcomes of the success plans that the coaches are creating with their students.

From those success plans, the coaches will put in some action items for themselves. This can be referring students to different departments or providing them with resources. They also put in action items for the students, to whether they need to go to tutoring or turn in an assignment or speak with their professor.

Whatever those action items are, that’s encapsulated into the success plan. From there, the coach is able to circle back with the student and have some level of accountability in the partnership with the coach. The coach is able to check in and make sure that the student is on their way to getting back on track and working towards that success.

On a grander scale, we see that the highest amount of attrition that we have is during the first term. And so we’re really working to get the coaches involved with the students during that first six-month period to help with student persistence.

A few of the things that we have done with our coaches is embedding the coaches into orientation. So they are there right when the students get there for the first orientation; they are getting those resources and they’re able to have that coach for life during their time at Purdue Global. So that’s one of the ways that we are supporting our learners in this way.

We also are incorporated into the probation process, so if students do end up going on probation, they have a coach there that’s reaching out to them, helping them with their appeal and making sure that they are on the right track getting off of probation and, again, working towards graduation.

Inside Higher Ed: What is the training that your coaches go through servicing students with such a wide range of needs? You need to be able to talk about a lot of different topics. What does that training process look like?

Flood: We have a monthlong training process for our coaches. It’s pretty intensive and extensive, and we share with them what resources are available on campus and who to contact should they need to refer students.

We have experts come in and give presentations on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging and other trainings that are important as well. We also discussed the importance of theories and how they play into our practice, such as beginning with the end in mind and shining light on the behavior that you want to see. This is something that we use with our students every day, and we use in our personal lives every day, right? Someone does the dishes, and you thank them—“I’m so happy that you did that, thank you for doing that”—you’re shining that light even if you don’t realize it.

Another thing is that our coaches are certified in mental health first aid through a Purdue Extension program. This helps us to be better able to support students who are in crisis. Now, it’s important to note that we aren’t professional counselors, but we have to be prepared for those conversations. Because we are on the ground with students when talking with them every day, things are going to come up. It’s important that we know how to respond and how to connect them with professional resources, either in their area or through our Student Assistance Program.

Inside Higher Ed: If you had to give advice to someone else in higher education who was looking to support students, modeling off of your work or taking inspiration from the kinds of techniques that you and your coaches use, what are some other ideas that you would throw in somebody’s toolbox of how to support students?

Flood: I think that’s something that we are continuously revamping and talking about and brainstorming just because there’s not one way to help students.

We know that—you mentioned the relationship piece before—that’s so important, building that relationship, that level of trust, knowing that you’re willing to go above and beyond to help the student; it’s going to just make that relationship even stronger. That’s really the backbone of what we do.

Additionally, we have to really be creative with our outreach strategies for our students. Not everyone is going to like a phone call, not everyone is going to like a text. So it’s a mixture of both, and trialing and error different things that may work and sticking with those that do and maybe recycling the ones that don’t.

But it’s all about trial and error and just figuring out what works for the individual student and just not never giving up. We have a lot of success coaches who meet with students, and maybe the student doesn’t meet with them, they ghost them, they don’t hear back for whatever reason, but that coach still has them on their radar.

Maybe weeks away, we’ve had it where the student has reached out or responded finally to a success coach’s outreach. That coach has been like, “Well, I’m glad I didn’t stop my outreach, because they actually needed that support. When I reached out before, it just wasn’t the right time for them. But now it is and now we can start this process.” So just not giving up on students and giving them that intentional support in the moment.

Additionally, we have different ways in which we handle no-shows—that’s what we call a student who don’t show up to our appointments after scheduling them. Essentially, some of the coaches afterward, if the student doesn’t show up to the meeting, and they’ll send them a personalized video message after the session and say, “Hey, I wanted to get in contact with you. I’m so-and-so, I’m your success coach, and I’m so excited to meet with you. I would love to have a conversation.”

Sometimes that personalized video gives the student what they need to have the confidence to go to that meeting and have that discussion, because now, they’re not just seeing an email or text with no face to the name. They’re seeing this person who’s talking to them, who’s saying their name and interacting with them. That’s a personalized touch that goes the extra mile.

Listen to additional episodes of Voices of Student Success here.

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