The nature of support services provided in Higher Education has evolved over the past decade –  largely influenced by the return of adult students to colleges and universities – either re-engaging to complete a degree or beginning a new degree.  Adult students, typically defined as those over 25, bring a wealth of life experience and diverse perspectives to the college environment. However, re-engaging adult students is rarely successful if the underlying assumption is that one size of support services fits all.  Quite to the contrary, adult students often face unique challenges and require distinct support services different from those of traditional-age students. Supporting adult student needs has led to the development of more robust services than had previously been in place to support traditional age students.  And this will continue to be the case as adult student populations in higher ed continue to grow.

As an example, long gone are the days when inquiries for the financial aid office had to be dealt with in-person only during the hours of 9am-5pm on weekdays – and never during the lunch hour.  In the present university environment, admissions, registration, financial aid, library services, etc are all available and accessible online and 24/7, 365 days a year.  Traditional age students and adult students have the same expectation in this regard and most colleges and universities are stepping up accordingly.

However, the support of adult students requires even more attention.  In addition to the aforementioned transactional support services, institutional leaders should be mindful of the broader set of critical support services, such as:

  • Flexible scheduling: develop asynchronous, hybrid, and evening/weekend courses to cater to busy schedules. This may require investments in learning management systems and video conferencing technology.
  • Prior learning assessment: recognize and award credit for professional experience, on-the-job training, and volunteer work. Implement robust systems to evaluate and offer credit for work experience, certifications, and professional development. Consider hiring staff trained in PLA or partnering with external organizations.
  • Transparent and easily understood financial aid information: explain complex financial aid options and guide students through the application process. This may involve hiring financial aid advisors specifically for adult students.
  • Assistance with scholarships and grants: offer targeted scholarships and grants specifically for adult students. This may involve increased scholarship budgets as well as staff for assisting the students.
  • Career counseling focused on mid-career transitions: provide career counseling focused on mid-career transitions, resume and interview preparation support, and employer connections.This may involve hiring career counselors specializing in adult career transitions and building partnerships with companies in relevant fields. 
  • Networking opportunities: connect adult students with professionals in their field and alumni networks.This may require expanding corporate partnerships and relationships and developing an understanding of the skills and knowledge held by adult learners.

By understanding and addressing the unique needs of adult learners and allocating increased resources for services such as those highlighted above, higher education institutions can create a more supportive environment that fosters their retention and degree completion.

It is important for institutional leaders to understand that full support for adult students cannot stop at the transactional levels noted previously.  The broader dimension of needs should be considered as well.  Adult students are more likely to be managing and balancing personal and professional lives along with the demands of academic programs.  Adult students may just as likely be asking advisors about the appropriate academic pathway towards a degree in business administration as they would be seeking support for homelessness, health care issues, or military deployment questions.  Adult students may be managing childcare issues or finding themselves in the sandwich generation of caring for their parents and their children.  Or they may be elders themselves facing fears of returning to the classroom.  Adult students face many challenges and complexities that extend far beyond registering for their next course.  In this instance, institutional leaders should be mindful of the broader set of personal and social support services that can support student success, such as:

  • Financial literacy workshops: help students manage budgets, plan for educational expenses, and understand debt repayment options. Specially developed programming may be required. 
  • Childcare and family support resources: provide information and resources for childcare options, eldercare assistance, and other family support services.  Partner with local childcare providers or offer on-campus options and provide information on eldercare resources and family support services. This may involve allocating a budget for childcare subsidies or partnerships or hiring family support coordinators.
  • Mental health and wellness resources: ensure counseling services and programs that address the unique challenges of adult learners such as stress management and work-life balance.This may require hiring additional counselors or partnering with mental health organizations.
  • Technology access and training: provide reliable, affordable internet access options and offer digital literacy workshops to bridge technology gaps.This may involve partnering with internet providers or setting up computer labs and training programs.


To support and better understand and track the associated costs of additional services cited as examples in the list above, institutional leaders may want to consider options such as:

  • Grant funding: apply for grants specifically supporting adult learner initiatives or programs. 
  • Partnering with local organizations: collaborate with community colleges, libraries, and non-profit organizations to share resources and expertise.
  • Data-driven decision making tools: track enrollment trends, program utilization, and student outcomes to prioritize resource allocation effectively.
  • Focus on student outcomes: demonstrate the return on investment for resources by highlighting student success stories and positive career outcomes.


As university leaders consider re-engaging adult students and factor these decisions into the annual budget planning, the set of unique support needs such as those listed above should be reviewed.  Institutional leaders should also be asking themselves if they can simply scale existing support teams or if specialized training is needed. Careful evaluation of the knowledge and skills of the traditional college advisors will determine whether these advisors are adequately trained to support these unique needs.   Increasingly it is becoming clear that the answer is “no”.  The support needs are different and therefore the demands on the advisors are different too.  This should lead the institutional leaders to examine their development and training resources and decide whether external partnerships will be more cost effective and efficient than building and training internal teams.