Adult College Student Choice: Individual and Institutional Factors that Influence Students
The Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association (TICUA) asked us to explore why adult students, individuals age 25 and over, in Tennessee choose to enroll in private nonprofit institutions like their member campuses. It is their hope that better understanding adult college student choice will support TICUA’s role in the Tennessee Drive-to-55 initiative. To understand the issue context, we explored existing data sets from TICUA and the Tennessee higher education commission (THEC). To frame our research and study questions we met with staff of TICUA, THEC, and several campus administrators. After developing our study questions, we reviewed literature on college choice and adult students. Finally, we administered a survey of current adult students enrolled at several TICUA institutions and conducted interviews with adult students and campus administrators who work with adult students. Our analysis of these data sets led us to posit a set of best practices specific to Tennessee private, nonprofit colleges and universities. TICUA institutions can draw on this set of best practices in ways that suit their geographic contexts, program offerings, and campus culture. Tennessee is a laboratory for higher education innovation. A strong state lottery scholarship program has supported the growth of several initiatives that align with the latest thinking of the U.S. Department of Education and national think tank organizations like Lumina Foundation (USDE, 2012; Lumina, 2016). The Tennessee Reconnect program has mirrored Lumina’s call for states to serve adult students through first credentials, articulated pathways, and advising. The 2017 expansion of the Tennessee Promise scholarships, through the Tennessee Reconnect Act, gives adults free community college and puts the state ahead of any other in supporting adult college students (Fain, 2014). Tennessee’s higher education programs also largely address U.S. Department of Education recommendations for supporting adult learners with programs targeting access, quality, and completion (USDE, 2012). While TICUA’s membership of four-year institutions are largely excluded from press coverage surrounding the Tennessee Promise scholarships, these 34 campuses award the bachelor’s degree that is more highly coveted by employers and more versatile in the job market (CEW 2010, 2013). TICUA institutions certainly serve a smaller number of adult learners than other segments of the Tennessee higher education community, but they are expected to serve increasing numbers of adult students and offer experiences and programs unavailable at public or for-profit institutions (THEC, 2015). Additionally, nearly a third of bachelor's degrees awarded by TICUA institutions go to adult students (THEC, 2016). Our review of the existing data and literature suggest that students aged 25 and older pursue higher education in different ways than traditional aged students. These differences are best served by changes to marketing, recruiting, onboarding, classroom engagement, and path to degree. Adult students are more focused on specific employment outcomes, expect efficient administrative services, welcome classroom rigor, and require a clear and timely path to graduation and credentialing. While the four-year bachelor's degree is more sought-after by employers and more flexible in the national job market, adult students prefer to know that the knowledge and skills they personally learn will be worth the time and energy they expend to acquire them.