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Holistic Student Supports

Key Takeaways from the 2023 Adult Learner Success Summit

News & Updates
June 27, 2023

Over 1,000 participants gathered virtually for Achieving the Dream’s Adult Learner Success Summit on May 11. With the generous support of the ECMC Foundation, this half-day summit brought together experts in the field of adult learner education to share insights and actionable strategies aimed at improving this important population’s success in higher education. 

Keynote speaker Dr. Rebecca Butler, executive vice president of Columbus State Community College (CSCC), kicked off the event by sharing her own connection to adult learner success: Her mother chose to attend community college as an adult. “That one act,” Dr. Butler said, “has had generational effects for not only two generations but three different families.” 

Dr. Butler shared insights on how CSCC supports adult learners, from developing a deep understanding of adult students’ needs to cultivating robust community partnerships to influencing local, state, and national policy that affects equity in higher education. As part of ATD’s Community College Women Succeed advisory group, Dr. Butler also shared stories of student mothers who found success, purpose, and community at CSCC.  

Throughout the rest of the summit, attendees had their choice of topics to explore, with sessions addressing every step of the student journey. From outreach to enrollment to program design, experts shared meaningful tools and strategies to help their peers strengthen institutional practices that lead to adult learner success.  

All about outreach

In a session focused on community-based outreach, three recruitment specialists from the ATD Network shared how their institutions are working to reach into underserved areas and make sure all potential learners understand the opportunities available to them. 

Marie Veschusio, an admissions specialist at Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC) in New York, said one of the biggest challenges colleges face is making community members aware “that we’re even an option for them.” With support from ATD’s Prioritizing Adult Community College Enrollment (PACCE) grant, MVCC hired education outreach counselors who go out to community spaces, like churches, libraries, and even a local refugee center, to talk to prospective learners. 

Kenneth Glynn, an adult outreach associate at Lorain County Community College (LCCC) in Ohio, said partnerships with the community have been key for their adult learner outreach efforts. From prayer breakfasts at local churches to LCCC Aspire, which provides free classes to students pursuing a GED, the college has, Kenneth said, moved the needle for adult learners, particularly BIPOC learners. 

Buffae Howard, an adult recruiter at Wallace Community College (WCC) in Alabama, also stressed the importance of community partnerships. One of their most unique programs is an ongoing partnership with a district court in WCC’s service area. Once a month, representatives from WCC come to the court to share their programs and services and are available to answer any questions from community members interested in seeking out more opportunities.  

Enrollment management

Dr. Marisa Pierce, associate vice chancellor of enrollment management at Dallas College and an ATD coach, shared tips for building strategic enrollment plans focused on adult learners. While some enrollment and behavior trends have reversed in recent years (e.g., 85% of those who stopped out during the pandemic are considering re-enrolling), community colleges are still facing an enrollment crisis, especially for certain populations. Dr. Pierce argued that by focusing on strategic enrollment management (SEM), colleges can take actionable steps to improve outcomes for adult learners. 

SEM, she explained, does not end when a student enrolls but, rather, when they reach the end of their college journey (either through course completion or career placement). Successful SEM requires a holistic, cross-departmental approach that includes removing institutional barriers, redesigning student supports, and building external partnerships — all from the perspective of establishing a culture of care and understanding. 

A foundational aspect of SEM is the idea that many adult learners either don’t have enough time, enough help, or enough resources. College leaders and staff must keep it front of mind that the adult learner is having to manage life, she said. Students bring their whole selves to campus, and adult learners’ unique challenges and responsibilities will affect every aspect of their enrollment, progress, and completion. 

Student-centered design

In a session titled Rapid Re-skilling Program Design, Dr. Kimberly Moore, vice president for workforce innovation at Tallahassee Community College (TCC), discussed ways to design effective programs that prepare adult learners for in-demand local careers. TCC rolled out a rapid credentialing program in less than two weeks during the pandemic to help learners make the “classroom to paycheck” connection at a time when many adult learners specifically were facing increased obstacles to education. 

Their keys to success, Dr. Moore said, were establishing individualized services, making personal connections, instituting holistic supports, and collaborating with the community. They determined specific training targets by mapping out career opportunities based on people’s personality types and work styles — and then talked to stakeholders to determine the biggest workforce needs in their community. 

Adult learners require immediate feedback, she said, especially those in financially or socially tenuous situations; they need to understand their financial aid options and know what their career placement will look like after the program. Dr. Moore explained that by focusing on each person’s end game of economic and social mobility, and by being nimble and collaborative, TCC was able to not only roll out this rapid credentialing program in a short amount of time but also lay the groundwork for other institutions in Florida to receive funding to implement similar programs. 

Community-wide transformation

To support adult learners, community colleges can employ key strategies like community outreach, student-centered enrollment management and program design, and strategic partnerships. But as the closing keynote speakers pointed out, the most effective change is systemic — transformation should occur not only across the whole institution but also throughout communities, states, and the higher education system. 

Dr. Stacy Townsley of the Indiana Commission for Higher Education shared how her organization and its partners are working to increase support for veterans in higher education and to improve credit transfer policies across the state. Dr. Frances Villagran-Glover, president of Houston Community College – Southeast College, explained how the institution’s partnerships with local and regional organizations help them develop programs that increase economic mobility for Houston’s learners. They encouraged the audience to reimagine their roles within a broader system and to reinvigorate their daily approaches to this important work. 

After a packed half-day of immersive sessions and peer learning, participants came away with a better understanding of the importance of supporting adult learners in their communities, new tools and ideas to implement that support, and renewed energy to tackle the challenges ahead.  

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