3 takeaways from a gathering of nearly 700 adult learner administrators


3 takeaways from a gathering of nearly 700 adult learner administrators

What I learned at the Council of Graduate Schools annual meeting

I love attending academic conferences—not because I’m an academic (which I’m not) or because I love to visit attractions like the Country Music Hall of Fame (which I do). It’s because I always leave conferences reinvigorated about the work I do, energized by new ideas and new connections. One of my favorites is the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) annual meeting, which I attended for the fourth time this December along with nearly 700 adult learner administrators.

Each year, the CGS conference is a pulse check on the biggest issues facing graduate schools. The theme of this year’s conference was “students at the center,” and I can’t think of a better principle to guide our work as we enter the next decade.

Here are my biggest takeaways from the conference—and advice for how enrollment professionals can put students at the center in 2020.

Support services for adult learners are a growing part of the conversation—but we still have work to do

From academic advising to mental health counseling, improving student support is top-of-mind for many university leaders. Among the 161 adult and professional education leaders who responded to our topic poll, many wrote in that adult student success and support services for adult learners were top priorities.

Adult learners are students enrolled in online, graduate, certificate, and degree completion programs. Adult learners also include students age 25+ enrolled in undergraduate programs for the first time.

At the CGS annual meeting, administrators shared some of the ways the graduate students enrolled in their programs are unable to take advantage of support services, which are often designed with traditional undergrads in mind. Our researchers have also found advising, tutoring, writing, and math centers are subject to the “tyranny of the immediate,” which can disadvantage adult students who can’t drop in or meet from nine to five.

As a working mom of a 4-year-old and 1-year-old—not unlike many adult learners—I can imagine how hard it would be to find time to stop by an advisor’s office hours or attend regular tutoring sessions. That problem would only be exacerbated if I was enrolled online at a college or university a state away.

Today, the adult learner experience is no longer all that nontraditional. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, adult learners make up nearly half of all students enrolled in colleges and universities nationwide. At CGS, it became even more apparent our support services need to catch up.

Putting students at the center begins before they’re enrolled

Looking around the sessions I attended, I was struck by the number of admissions and marketing leaders at CGS compared to previous years. Their growing presence made me think about how the colleges and universities I work with to recruit adult learners work to put students at the center of their marketing, long before they enroll.

Considering the student’s perspective during marketing and recruitment is more important than ever. Students today are savvy consumers. From seemingly instant Amazon deliveries to ads that serve the perfect message at the perfect time, students expect schools to predict their needs and be highly responsive to them.

In our annual survey of 1,000 prospective and current adult learners, we found students prioritize schools’ responsiveness to their inquiries above all other communication during their program research. And when schools are not responsive, both student experience and enrollment can suffer.

“It was at least a month before I got a response, and by that time, I reached out to say I was no longer interested in attending their school…I did not think this was a good reflection of how they treat their students.”

Adult Learner Survey participant

I always tell our Adult Learner Recruitment partners it’s important to not only respond to students in a timely manner, but also to anticipate their needs in your marketing messages and on your website. For example, an FAQ page which consolidates key program information in one place makes it easier for students to decide if your program is right for them and take the next step towards enrollment. With 43% of adult learners applying to just one school and most spending less than two hours on the application, minimizing unnecessary barriers in the admissions process is more important than ever.

Put adult learners at the center of your program design

Recent CGS annual meetings have focused on PhD programs and upholding more traditional values of graduate education. But this year, there was change in the air. I was struck by the number of sessions focused on best practices in holistic admissions review, addressing biases and tearing down “barriers to entry,” and the value of online education. 


of prospective adult learners said they didn't enroll because of work or family commitments
of prospective adult learners said they didn’t enroll because of work or family commitments

With more working professionals going back to school to get an advanced degree, it’s critical for colleges and universities to adapt their recruitment methods to meet these students’ needs and ambitions, which often look different from those a traditional PhD research student. In our survey, 45% of prospective adult learners said they did not enroll because of work or family commitments. And 50% said they were considering online program options. 

For graduate programs to put students at the center, they will need to look at how they are designing their programs. What modalities will enable a student to study on their own time? Are students able to enroll at multiple points throughout the year to accommodate work schedules? What prerequisites do students need? And how complicated is it to figure out tuition and fees? These are all questions prospective students consider, and if they don’t like the answer, there are countless other options for them to pursue.

One of the most humbling moments at the CGS annual meeting was during the first plenary when a faculty member (and current graduate student) stood up and reminded us of the delicate balance between putting the student at the center, and upholding our values as educators and our responsibility to build leaders and communities. This will be a challenge for all of us, but it’s an important one to take on to ensure we’re serving today’s adult learner. 

Read more about adult learners

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