Pamela Tate is the Chief National Partnerships Officer for Strada Education Network. Prior to that role, she served as President and CEO of CAEL. Recognized for her work within the higher education, public, and private sectors to make it easier for adults to get the education and training they need to succeed. We caught up with her after her session at Connect 2018 to learn more about the challenges adult students face.
You talked a little bit about this in your presentation, but I wanted to learn more. Tell me the difference between what an adult learner is looking for and what a young adult learner is looking for in a college program.
In my speech, I divided adults into different categories, but the unifying thing for adults, as opposed to 18- to 24-year olds, is that nearly every adult that we’ve ever worked with comes with the desire for some immediate change in their life. It could be a change in career, it could be a response to unemployment, it could be a change in their family. They want to do something different. They’re absolutely very practical about why they’re doing it. And they rarely go back with no particular objective.
Therefore, they’re more goal-driven; they want results sooner. They want the shortest possible route to the degree or credential. They want programs they can engage in where they won’t have too many barriers to entry. They want answers. They want a plan. They don’t want to meander around in an academic program.
And I think that traditional students, even those that are the practical, associate degree-takers, have a little more time when they’re 18-24. When you’re 18-24, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you—and not that everybody can be impractical, but you can wait longer for things to happen. I think that’s a big difference.
What do you consider the greatest barrier that keeps an adult learner from earning a degree?
The three biggest barriers mentioned in surveys are lack of time—due to family, work, community obligations; lack of money; and then lack of confidence. Just not believing that I can do it, not thinking I’m a college student, really. Not believing in myself. That’s a huge issue for students.
They entered the program with the confidence that they could graduate. What do you think causes this crisis of confidence?
Once they’re there? They’re dealt with from a deficit model mindset (a term introduced to people at Connect 2018 by keynote speaker, Karen Gross, meaning the tendency to focus on a student’s weaknesses, not their strengths). You know, “this person doesn’t have these things.” And so, it doesn’t build their confidence; it often erodes their confidence, especially if they’re in a program with students who they see to be right out of high school and traditional and who have an easier time of it than they do. They find that difficult.
Also, testing is a real challenge. People are afraid of tests, and they often were unsuccessful in their last attempt at schooling. And, of all the things you ask people about, it’s tests that do people in. They often know more, but they get so upset having to take a high-performance test of some kind that they just freeze up. Testing is an enormous challenge and barrier for adults. They tend to view them as a measure of “the whole me”. They cannot see that the test is not a judgement about them and whether they have ability.
Given that you can’t do much to help people with time or even money, the variable seems to be how we help people with confidence.
I think it can be done by having the right kind of student services and teaching faculty along the lines of what [Karen Gross] was talking about—the deficit model vs. the strength-based model. If we had faculty that approached their adult students from a strength-based approach and built on what they know already, I think it would help build their confidence. I’ve seen it work. One faculty member can turn a person’s life around.
We need advisors who learn how to work with adults, focusing on the strengths a person brings, what they’ve already learned, the experience they have from prior jobs or parental life, and who know how to draw out of them their strengths. If you can retrain your advising staff to think about adults differently, you can also retrain your faculty to base teaching not on the assumption that people know nothing, but that they could actually be partners in the learning process.