Student Engagement: A Closer Look at Returning Adult Students

Student Engagement: A Closer Look at Returning Adult Students

Paul Shepherd

Paul Shepherd, Director of Student Involvement, University of Wisconsin - River Falls

Persistence and graduation rates among returning adult college students has become an issue of increased importance in the higher education landscape. Professor Pat Keith has researched the potential barriers these “nontraditional” students face and their use of academic and social services many colleges and universities provide in an attempt to increase the success experienced by this increasing demographic in higher education.

Keith (2007) quotes the work of Bundy and Smith when stating, Four year colleges and universities have especially been criticized for not providing services that might retain nontraditional students. The researcher goes on to cite the work of Mercer who identified three types of barriers many adult students face when pursing higher education.

Situational Barriers. These include family commitments and employment status which have the potential to take time away from the higher education experience.

Dispositional Barriers. These refer to the adjustment issues and personal worries many adult students have when considering whether they have the skills to fit with younger students.

Institutional Barriers. These include inconvenient class time, lack of appropriate office hours of critical university services and lack of opportunity to become engaged in relevant experiences outside of the classroom.

Literature conducted on nontraditional college student success has indicated that services provided by colleges and universities could make a positive difference in educational attainment. The research conducted in the Keith study showed that while these barriers exist, the students who contend with these hardships do not utilize services on campus as a means to overcome these obstacles. Services designed to increase "nontraditional" student success may not be directed toward barriers that are relevant or can be altered. A returning adult student’s set of situational barriers cannot be altered and use of services would not necessarily counteract the threat of attainment those barriers present. When presented with a choice between the student role and perhaps the role of parent, a returning adult student who is also a parent is likely to choose the parental role over the student role.

Keith (2007) quotes the work of Bauman et al. who found “40 to 76 percent of nontraditional students would be likely or very likely to use services on campus. Willingness to use services and projected need exceeds actual use”. This research suggests the existence of a need among "nontraditional" students for academic and social services that accurately addresses their concerns.

Promising practices within the classroom exist to support the needs of nontraditional students; however, more thought and study should be given to how out of class services can holistically support the experience of returning adult students both on campus and in their home environments.

With the wealth of research suggesting the positive connections between student engagement and educational attainment, it seems college and university personnel should determine how to change existing structures to provide these experiences and services to returning adult students as a means to increase their chances of success.

As a student engagement professional, I find that often our involvement experiences run the risk of being inaccessible for returning adult students who manage multiple life roles. In our discussions within my department about this, we came up with a few strategies that seem to have helped increase the availability of involvement opportunities for all students.

  1. We discontinued our traditional distinguished lecture series. While this program is a tried and true component of most co-curricular program models, most speaking events occur in the evenings and are "one shot" programs that you have to attend at a specific time in order to experience. Additionally, most speakers will prohibit the rebroadcast of their performance. We, along with plenty of other departments like ours have paid thousands of dollars to bring in wonderful speakers who often speak to a largely homogeneous crowd and then are never heard from again. We have made a transition to presenting TED style speaking experiences that can be filmed and made available for students at their convenience. In our first experiment with this delivery method, we used web analytics and found not only many of our students watching online, but people all over our region, state, and even nationally checking out our videos.

  2. We have beefed up our use of student engagement technology with the help of our friends at OrgSync. We've used OrgSync's platform to deliver student organization training and a student organization experience for students who may not often be on campus. While being a virtual member of a student organization may prevent participation in some activities and events, the use of video, message boards, and other tools have provided a way to interact. Students are able to form small groups, work on projects virtually, and report back to the group without having to meet face to face. We've also provided tools to help returning adult students navigate the technology using YouTube videos. Who doesn't like watching YouTube videos?!

  3. We stopped making the assumption that returning adult students wouldn't be interested in getting involved or working in our office. We have seen an increase in returning adult students applying for our student leadership positions in our office. Many of our returning adult student staff members have told us our intentional efforts to recruit them made a difference and they have enjoyed the environment we have created that celebrates the life experiences of all of our student staff members. Our efforts and experiences have given us a high level of "street cred" among our returning adult students which has helped to increase engagement. Word of mouth is still our #1 marketing strategy. We didn't spend more money or discover any big secret. We were just bold enough to change our typical structures to become more inclusive.

We certainly have ways we can improve, by giving thought to how engagement experiences, student services, and pedagogy can contribute to the support and success of our returning adult students. What are you doing on your campuses to engage your adult students? Or what ideas do you have that you’d love to see someone try?

This post is part of a series on Student Engagement. Read all posts in this series, here.


Keith, P. M. (2007). Barriers and nontraditional students’ use of academic and social services. College Student Journal, (41)4, 1123-1127.

About the Author: Paul Shepherd currently serves as the Director of Student Involvement at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls where he is responsible for a diverse array of student engagement opportunities including leadership, student organizations, service/volunteerism, student governance, and campus events. Paul has served the student affairs profession for 13 years and is passionate about student learning and development through intentional co-curricular programming. Paul is currently pursuing a Doctor of Educational Leadership degree and is interested in researching student engagement and persistence to graduation among multicultural, first generation, and low income college students. Paul has served as a presenter, consultant, and speaker in the areas of leadership development, student engagement, bystander intervention, and learning outcomes based assessment. In his spare time, Paul enjoys spending time with his family and blogging at Renewing Leadership. Paul also loves engaging with colleagues and students via Twitter! Follow Paul @pshepRF.

Paul Shepherd

Paul Shepherd, Director of Student Involvement, University of Wisconsin - River Falls