Options Aplenty for Adult Learners

Adults choose to return to school for any number of reasons, but one thing is certain: The college experience for nontraditional students is unlike that of undergraduates straight out of high school. With responsibilities both professionally and at home, there's more for adult learners to consider when pursuing a higher education.

For those reasons, educators at colleges and universities often tailor programs to fit the needs of older students.

Whether it is a graduate degree or an effort to improve a current career path with an associate or bachelor's degree, the Tristate has a lot to offer to adult learners.

Flexibility Is Key

According to Melody Clark, academic director of the distance-learning program at the University of Cincinnati, the key to accommodating nontraditional students is flexibility.

"When you're catering to adult learners, you need to focus on access and efficiency," Clark says. This means courses are available to students at a variety of times and locations, making the prospect of earning a degree more manageable for people with professional and family obligations.

"Access and efficiency are critical to helping adults meet their education and professional development goals," she says. "The ability to offer courses on evenings, weekends, and online is huge," Clark says.

While evening and weekend classes are available, UC's distance learning program takes full advantage of the growing online medium in continuing education, offering 24 degrees that can be obtained solely through online courses "” two at the associate level, six at the bachelor's level, and 16 master programs and tracks.

Despite being Internet-based, degrees from the distance learning program are fully comparable to their on-campus counterparts.

And distance learning at UC is growing in popularity each year. As of Fall 2011, nearly 4,000 students were enrolled in the program "” a 10.8 percent increase from the previous year.

"People who are dealing with multiple responsibilities need to make progress toward their education and career goals while juggling their professional and at-home responsibilities," Clark says. "Taking courses online allows for greater flexibility to do that."

Online Courses Are Big Draw

Another Tristate school offering higher education options to adult learners is Indiana Wesleyan University, based in Marion, Indiana, with regional locations in Cincinnati and Lexington, among others.

Carson Castleman, associate VP of regional education at the university, calls Indiana Wesleyan "one of the forerunners in adult education," having initiated the program in 1986. Today the university offers more than 50 degrees in continuing education from associate to doctorate programs as well as professional certifications.

Like the online courses of the distance-learning program at the University of Cincinnati, online courses are a big draw for many enrollees in the adult education programs at Indiana Wesleyan and its regional branches. Every degree offered on campus can also be earned electronically.

But, according to Castleman, the university hasn't forgotten the importance of the traditional education setting with a professor and a blackboard.

"Indiana Wesleyan is committed to maintaining an on-site component so people who want face-to-face interaction in a classroom have that available to them," Castleman says. "Not everyone learns alike. It's a nice way to give adults options."

Students enrolled in the adult program can choose programs that meet for class one night a week. If it's on a Monday, students will continue to attend class on Monday evenings until the degree is earned. Courses at the associate and
bachelor's level last five weeks, while classes in graduate programs like the MBA last six weeks.

With an average age of 37 in the adult program, that adds convenience for students with commitments outside of the classroom.

"As an adult with responsibilities, dedicating one night a week to school allows you to better plan out your life," Castleman says. And according to Castleman, once the time restrictions become manageable, there are very few obstacles from an educational standpoint when it comes to teaching adult learners.

"These are committed individuals with a goal in mind," he says. "If there is ever a challenge, it's getting them re-acclimated to an academic setting."

And Indiana Wesleyan aids students in the re-acclimation process through academic advising, tutoring and research assistance at each regional campus as well as online. Just like the on-campus courses, students enrolled in online courses are also encouraged to stop in for help.

Bridging The Gap

Northern Kentucky's Gateway Community and Technical College also provides students with developmental and remedial work aimed at bridging the gap in continuing education.

Dr. Laura Urban, provost and VP of academic affairs at Gateway Community and Technical College, says it's important to recognize where adult learners have been in order to assess their educational needs.

"Often students are looking to gain new skills through education because their jobs have gone away or because they want to be prepared for future opportunities," she says. "The goal from an educator's perspective is to create the best environment for the student to succeed."

Gateway students, who are, on
average, 28 years old, have the opportunity to earn associate degrees in nearly 30 fields as well as transfer degrees in arts and science. If a student chooses to pursue a higher degree, these transfer degrees can be credited to schools across the Tristate.

Like UC and Indiana Wesleyan, Gateway also takes advantage of the web, offering a range of online courses for adult learners who don't have time to commute to campus. But not everyone is a good fit for online learning, according to Urban, and Gateway provides alternative hybrid-style courses that combine it with the traditional classroom.

"Since a great deal of our students work and have family obligations, we're always looking at new ways to try to meet their needs," Urban says. "The hybrid program works very well for first time students who are working full time and aren't quite sure if they want to do an entirely online course yet."

Instead of meeting at the Gateway campus for three hours each week, students enrolled in a hybrid course may meet once a week in the classroom, completing the rest of their coursework online. Because students regularly meet with their professor in-person, the hybrid course delivers more structure than an exclusively online course. That makes it harder for students to fall behind.

The education Gateway delivers to students is also unique in its ability to cater programs to regional economic needs. Because it maintains a close relationship with employers, the school is in a position to initiate new academic programs and certificates to meet the demands.

"At the start of the fall semester, a new paramedic degree will be available for students at Gateway," Urban says. "We're starting the program because there is an increasing need for paramedics locally."