Adult Students Need Resilient, Emotionally Intelligent Colleges


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Al Siebert, PhD

The colleges most effective at attracting, retaining, and graduating adult students are those that are highly resilient and demonstrate excellent emotional intelligence with adult students.

In the past, college systems, processes, and instructional methods functioned to handle teenagers coming directly from high school. This traditional student was proceeding, as expected, with the next step in life. The old procedure had young students choose a major, learn what the professors taught, and compete with each other for grades for four years. The sixty percent (approximately) who survived received a diploma. Employers knew they were trained to be obedient employees in large, unchanging organizations.

Colleges were not very resilient when more and more older students enrolled. Colleges did not know what to call or how to handle older college students very well. The phrases "adult students" and "adult learners" are still not fully satisfactory. Such phrases silently imply that traditional students are "adolescent learners."

Most adult students are emotionally coping with unexpected, and often unwanted, major life transitions. They start college classes with more fears, anxieties and concerns than traditional students. Because of family, work, and other responsibilities, they tend to think of enrolling in January and signing up for one or two courses at a time. They feel like misfits on campuses where most of the class schedules, student activities, and messages are for traditional younger students. They feel like misfits in classes where instructors do not know how to teach the way adult students learn. They feel that they aren’t getting their money’s worth when they are not taught in ways that prepare them to survive and compete in today’s world of constant change.

Organizations now make internal changes so frequently, it is rare for anyone to have an up-to-date job description. Organizations want people who:

  • have an internal locus-of-control with attitudes of professionalism
  • are self-motivated
  • can transition quickly
  • work well in temporary teams
  • constantly learn new technology and new skills
  • strive for continuous improvement
  • succeed at reaching team-set goals

In today’s world, colleges must role model organizational resiliency, be change proficient, and demonstrate emotional intelligence in their handling of adult students.