Last updated: April 14. 2014 11:48PM - 1656 Views

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Most Americans typically think of a college student as an 18- to 22-year-old who graduated recently from high school, lives in a residence hall on campus and attends classes full time during the day. This snapshot of collegiate life, though, is hardly the norm nowadays, as only 16 percent of the undergraduate population studying in American colleges and universities fits this description.

Most of the remaining population is made up largely by part-time students who are employed full time and take classes in the evening, on weekends or online. These nontraditional students bear little resemblance to their traditional counterparts. They are – by-and-large – working adults who have family responsibilities in addition to dealing with the rigors of higher education, according to the U.S. Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education.

This trend has been increasing steadily in recent years. Thirty-eight percent of the 17.6 million undergraduate students in America today are over the age of 25, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The center predicts more adults of this age group will be enrolling or returning to college until 2019.

These students are enrolled in continuing education programs at universities, often after attending or graduating from a community college. Some have not attended school for five to 10 years. They must overcome their lack of confidence in their ability to learn and they worry about how they will be perceived by traditional-aged classmates.

Faced with growing numbers of adult learners, our institutions of higher education must find ways, such as flexible course scheduling, to accommodate this population that has a very different set of needs. A greater variety of courses and majors needs to be made available completely online, and, of course, a proactive approach needs to be taken with each student in regard to advising so we can ensure that we are responding and meeting their unique needs.

The Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance in 2012 completed a report for Congress titled “Pathways to Success: Integrating Learning with Life and Work to Increase National College Completion.’’ The committee strongly advised universities to stop treating adults as if they were traditional students and instead urged them to adopt practices that better meet the needs of adults returning to school to complete a bachelor’s degree.

More specifically, higher education should have flexible formats, including classroom, online and hybrid models, in order to accommodate adult lifestyles and demands on their time. Predictable scheduling that enables adults to efficiently plan time for classes and for study is also a key component of a successful adult program.

In addition, colleges and universities should offer accelerated formats that enable students to complete the degree program faster than the traditional two- or three-semester structure. These formats should be combined with multiple start times throughout the calendar year. Finally, the application for Prior Learning Assessment, which gives credit for experience in the workplace, should be completed and approved before formal classes begin.

The Misericordia University Expressway Accelerated Degree Program was developed 15 years ago to serve the needs of adult learners who held an associate degree or had a number of college credits, but were unable to complete their bachelor’s degree. The full-time, traditional model was not possible for them, so a unique one-night per week, one-course-at-a-time model was developed and offered at Luzerne County Community College in Nanticoke. Students can complete a course in as little as five weeks of accelerated study. A degree can be achieved in about 2½ years. Another location at Lackawanna College in Scranton is now available, while online course work has been the fastest-growing segment in the Expressway format for the last three years.

After 15 years, it is easy to see how our Expressway model has had a major impact on adult learners and their families. Just ask one of our more than 1,000 alumni in Northeastern Pennsylvania and beyond.

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