With plush green lawns, colonial architecture and roots in the Quaker faith, Guilford College rests comfortably in the long tradition of liberal arts institutions. Contemplating the culture of a college like Guilford, one might readily imagine groups of young people diving into Yeats or Wordsworth beneath a canopy of shady oaks. And while there’s surely some truth to that stereotype, Guilford’s last decade of growth has been largely tied to a significant increase in nontraditional students, making the college one where you’re just as likely to see a mother of two in her mid-30s as an 18-year-old freshman.
Guilford’s adult bachelor’s degree programs date to the 1950s, but it was only in the last decade that the adult population began to rival that of traditional students on the residential campus. While college officials say that serving adults is part of Guilford's community-oriented philosophy, they also acknowledge that these students are crucial to bringing in additional revenue.
Adults made up about 35 percent of Guilford’s enrollment in the early 2000s, but they now constitute close to half of the North Carolina independent college's students. Indeed, Guilford's enrollment of about 2,800 this fall constituted a doubling of size in about 10 years, and that growth has mostly come from students who are 23 or older.
Kent John Chabotar, president of Guilford, arrived there eight years ago from Bowdoin College, which, “like most traditional liberal arts colleges, has no adult students, virtually.” But Chabotar says he’s now convinced that the learning environment is enriched by placing adults alongside traditional students in a liberal arts setting. While the college's Center for Continuing Education is a specialized entity catering to adults, part of Guilford's aim is to bring the traditional and adult populations together.
“In the class, I think it’s almost all positive,” said Chabotar, who previously served as Bowdoin’s vice president for finance and administration and treasurer. “The idealism of the younger students [is] balancing, some would say the cynicism, I would say the realism, of the adults.”
“The challenge is never forgetting you’ve got a mix of adults, never forgetting the needs of adults," he added.
The demographics of Guilford’s adult student population differ significantly from those of the traditional student body. About 40 percent of the adults are black, compared with 11 percent of the traditional-age students. While the traditional students are split evenly across gender lines, about 70 percent of the adult students are women. On average, the adults are 35 years old.
Guilford is far from the only liberal arts college to serve adults, but the college has been deliberate in its efforts to serve that population on the same campus as traditional students, and college officials say the creation of programs like an adult student government make Guilford's approach stand out. The adults, about 60 percent of whom are enrolled full time, don’t live on campus, but they’re routinely seated alongside traditional students in class. That differs from a place like Indiana Wesleyan University, where a primary campus hosts about 3,200 traditional students, and another 11,000 adult students are taking classes either online or at one of 16 centers in three different states.
Catering to Adults
The differing needs of adult learners create an interesting balancing act for Guilford, which hopes to integrate adults into the campus while at the same time respecting the reality that adults grapple with different issues from those of the typical 18- to 22-year-old.
Not surprisingly, scheduling gets complicated for the numerous adult students who are holding down jobs -- often full time. Guilford offers a host of evening classes that are most popular among adults, although they draw traditional students as well.
The college has also worked to better customize the orientation period for adults. In contrast to Guilford’s First Year Experience course, which introduces traditional students to campus facilities and extracurricular opportunities, the Adult Transition course is a writing-intensive class designed to help adults bone up on crucial skills they may not have practiced for some time.
Guilford also has its own student government for adults, and -- with the help of an adult student -- is piloting a mentoring program specifically designed for first-generation adult students, who make up 67 percent of the college’s adult population.
Gateways to Success, a one-credit course for first-generation students, is intended to give these students a fundamental introduction into college life.
“A vast majority of them are first-generation college-goers, so they’ve never heard college talk around their homes,” said Rita Serotkin, dean of the Center for Continuing Education. “They don’t know what a GPA is; they don’t know how to calculate it. They don’t know what research tools are available in the library. A lot of them will drop out for those reasons.”
On an 11-year average, the spring-to-fall persistence rate for adults at Guilford is 74 percent, compared to 85 percent for the traditional students.
Nicole Cornett Arnold, who enrolled at Guilford in 2005 as a 27-year-old first-generation student, said she discovered rather quickly that adult students needed the kind of support Guilford is now trying to offer through Gateways. Drawing on her own experience as a student, Arnold has helped to design the Gateways course with help of a grant  from the Council of Independent Colleges and the Wal-Mart Foundation.
“I knew there was something missing. Something we needed. Something I needed,” said Arnold, who is pursuing her degree and working full time as a student success counselor at Guilford.
Guilford’s adult students often come to the college with baggage from life that their traditional counterparts are less likely to carry. Perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than with Victor Michael Vincent, the 42-year-old president of Guilford’s Student Government Association, which is separate from the student Senate for traditional students. A native of Baltimore, Vincent says his adolescence resembled the lives of characters portrayed on The Wire , the heralded HBO series that gave an unrelenting portrait of Baltimore’s drug culture.
“I’ve spent a lot of my adult life in and out of prison for drug dealing, assault and battery. I was also addicted to heroin, a heroin dealer,” Vincent said. “I was to the point where I was being viewed as a career criminal, and I realized I had to do something different.”
Vincent worked his way through a job training program and a GED before moving to Greensboro, N.C., where a television advertisement for Guilford drew him to the college. The road wasn't easy, though. Vincent, now a criminal justice major considering law school, still works 40 hours a week as a street sweeper; he takes classes at night.
Vincent is something of an unofficial mentor to his classmates, saying he’s advised many of them on how to navigate college life. Many adult students get overwhelmed with the coursework, stacking up demanding classes all at once, rather than balancing high-level math and science with electives, he said.
“Sometimes school is about the way you take your classes more than the classes you take,” Vincent said.
As much as Vincent may be seen as a success story, he said he still worries about falling back into the life he worked so hard to escape.
“I’m still humble,” he said. “I still have that feeling the street is just a day away.”
Guilford’s adult learning program dovetails with a Quaker goal of educating the surrounding community, but it doesn't hurt the college's bottom line, either. Indeed, a recent budget analysis suggested that adult students give the college its largest per-student financial returns.
“The adults provided the most net contribution of anybody,” Chabotar said. “Even though their tuition is less, they don’t get as much financial aid and they don’t use as many services. We lose the least on adults.”
A full-time traditional Guilford student pays $28,000 a year in tuition and fees, compared with $6,700 for an adult taking an average of 11 credit hours per semester. At the same time, the traditional students get a lot more institutional financial aid. The discount rate, which represents the gap between a college’s published price and the amount of tuition and fees it actually collects from students, is 44 percent for traditional students. The discount rate for adults is a negligible 2 percent.
Given the financial pressures on many liberal arts colleges, it’s not surprising to see more of them moving into the adult learning market, said Pamela Tate, president and chief operating officer of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.
“What we’ve observed is that a lot of small liberal arts colleges or wings of the college took on adult learning divisions to strengthen their financial bottom line,” she said. “In other words, they went into adult learning because they weren’t making enough money on traditional undergraduates.”
But effectively handling adult students isn’t as easy as flipping a switch, Tate said. Colleges need more focused career counseling for adults, who are often returning to college in hopes of moving into new professions, she said. Tate added that the first-year experience needs to be different for adults, and institutions should develop ways of awarding credit for the knowledge adults have gained outside the classroom -- something Guilford has yet to do.
“Colleges that decide to go after adults, they’ve really got to rethink all their programs and services and approaches,” Tate said.