4 Factors to Consider for Supporting Students in Their 30s, 40s, 50s, & Beyond

When I first began my student affairs career, I envisioned working with college students of “traditional” ages. 

Yet, I’ve since fallen in love with the atmosphere and values of technical and community colleges — which tend to have higher populations of undergraduate students who are older than 22. 

These learners have unique needs and challenges. Returning to college life can feel overwhelming; in addition to juggling other responsibilities, adult students may feel alienated on campus due to their age and perception as “non-traditional”.

It is our job as SApros to engage and work with students of all ages and backgrounds to help them achieve their definition of success. But how do we do so when our training and education has focused almost entirely on students aged 18-22? 

Start by getting to know adult learners and the unique challenges they face.

Adult learners (defined as ages 25 and older) make up about 35% of today’s current students. 

They are the fastest-growing demographic group in higher education, and they need our support to succeed. Retention rates are at stake here; if we don’t support adult student’s needs they may not graduate nor persist year after year.

Transitioning Back

Similar to first-generation students, adult learners may not understand intimate ins and outs of going to college. In fact, these students are often one and the same; around 54% of first-generation students also identify as adult learners, adding to the culture shock they may experience during their critical first semesters.

Fortunately, SA pros can help adult learners catch up with younger students by:

  • Sharing with students the resources that are available to them, such as academic advising, career services, mental health counseling, childcare, laptop loans, and food pantries.
  • Creating pamphlets, announcements, and bulletin boards that explain commonly misunderstood academic terminologies, such as syllabus, prerequisites, thesis, and pass-fail
  • Disseminating info to students on financial aid terms such as unsubsidized loans, pell grants, and expected family contributions.
  • Empowering students to ask for help whenever they’re struggling with their courses or in their personal lives.

Children, Grandchildren, and Dependents

In 2015 (the most recent data available), 4.8 million college students in the U.S. were raising a dependent child. More than 1.7 million were single mothers. Additionally, the median age of student caregivers in 2020 was 31, and students of color make up a larger share of student parents than in the general student population.

Some students even have grandchildren. Senior citizens are even incentivized to enroll; All 50 states have free or reduced-cost courses for older adults, typically defined as age 60 and older.

Knowing all this, SA pros can take the following actions to support the needs of student caregivers:

  • Provide free or significantly reduced childcare for students while they are in class, studying on campus, or are participating in co-curricular activities. You can employ student staff or provide internships for students studying education or child psychology.
  • Advertise scholarships that are either specifically geared toward student caregivers or that such students may benefit from.
  • Offer workshops that may especially appeal to student caregivers, such as CPR/AED certifications and basic first aid training.

Despite the many challenges, student caregivers can absolutely excel when given the proper tools and resources. On average, they actually maintain higher GPAs than non-caregiving students!

Second, Third, or even Fourth Career

Given that only 27% of college graduates have a job related to their major, it’s no surprise that some adults return to campus for a new or more advanced degree that better aligns with their current or desired career path.

It’s important to note that 28% of adult students are earning their degrees primarily or entirely online. Many are also returning to school with outstanding loans from their original degree;14% of American adults currently have student debt, and about 40% of student loans taken each year are to fund graduate and professional degrees.

Career coaches and academic advisors can address these challenges head-on by:

  • Having exploratory conversations about career alignment and offering skills and interest assessments
  • Facilitating workshops that revolve around tailoring resumes and cover letters to desired fields with an emphasis on transferable skills adult learners may already have
  • Being ready to offer information on career outlooks, and outcomes, including salary ranges
  • Counseling students on flexible, well-paying career options for caregivers

Despite these challenges, students who return to the classroom later in life bring vital skills, knowledge, and experiences with them, and may even inspire other students to persist in their studies.

The Full Part-Time Experience

Course loads differences between traditional and nontraditional student learners are stark. Only 34% of students over age 40 are enrolled full-time, compared to 83% of students overall.

There are many benefits and drawbacks to attending college part-time.

Benefits include increased flexibility for work and course schedules, and a greater ability to balance work and take courses without feeling overwhelmed.

Drawbacks include that some courses may need to be taken simultaneously or are only offered infrequently. Going part-time also results in a slower pace toward graduation, and students may be ineligible for certain grants, scholarships, and other forms of financial funding. And perhaps most concerningly, part-time students often feel less connected to their institutions.

As SApros, it’s our job to make all students — including those who are enrolled part-time — feel welcome, invited, and included at campus events.

You can address the disconnectivity that comes with being a part-time student through these strategies:

  • Have a designated physical or online space for part-time students to connect. Post flyers for events and support services in commuter lounges and other common hang-out spots for part-time students. 
  • Craft a campus guide specific to the needs and interests of part-time students. Check out this wonderful example from Fairfield University.
  • Facilitate social events that cater (or may especially appeal) to part-time and adult students, including networking events, lunches, and programs hosted by part-time student organizations..
  • Schedule events and services doing the weekend, evening, or other hours when most students aren’t working. Better yet, offer childcare services to students while they are attending on-campus events or make your programs family-friendly.

Whether you serve students at a community college, a four-year institution, or an online program, adult learners are an increasing population that comes with its own strengths and challenges. Supporting these students is vital to our mission of boosting student success.

What additional advice do you have about engaging with adult students? Connect with us on Twitter @themoderncampus.

And to learn more about supporting an expanding group of nontraditional students, check out 4 Ways You Can Support Student-Caregivers Returning to Class and Campus This Fall.

Corinna Kraemer

About the author: Corinna Kraemer (she/her) works in ed tech and loves painting, running, and hanging out with her cat, Mr. K. She hopes her posts will finally help her dad understand what her career in student affairs is all about. Learn how we can help get your students involved.