Research Report: How Your Association Can Better Attract, Support and Retain Adult Learners

An episode of the Leading Learning Now podcast, hosted by Jeff Cobb and Celisa Steel from Tagoras, inspired this post about attracting, supporting, and retaining adult learners. Celisa spoke with Christine Carpenter, senior vice president of engagement at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL). CAEL’s members are post-secondary educational institutions, workforce development organizations, and employers. Its mission is shared by associations: to “align learning and work so that adults achieve continuous, long-term career success.”

CAEL conducted extensive research on adult learners, their needs, and educational practices to meet those needs. Their research report, Adult Learner Leaders for Institutional Effectiveness, provides a framework for “becoming an adult learner-focused institution.”

How to attract, support and retain adult learners

The report splits its recommendations into five themes and ten domains. We’ve narrowed them down into seven strategies for creating a learning environment in which adult learners can flourish.

attract, support and retain adult learners like this man and woman in business suits looking at a tablet

#1: Data-driven planning

To offer what the market needs, associations must invest in continual market research. Talk regularly to employers about the skills and knowledge needed for different job roles. Match your program offerings to those required competencies and identify any gaps in your portfolio.

Find out more about the learners coming into your programs. Where are they in their career? What’s their work and educational history? Why are they taking this program? What are their goals?

Collect learner outcome data beyond program completion and pass metrics. Stay in touch with learners to understand the program’s impact on their job, career, and business, both during and after the program. Did their completion of the program lead to a job offer, new project, promotion, raise, or other career development?

#2: Affordability

Adult learners are cost- and value-conscious. Many lack the financial means to invest in their future. If you can help them find a way to enroll in the program and gain the competencies needed to move up the career ladder, you’ll earn their thanks and loyalty.

Payment plans help make professional development more affordable. Consider scholarships funded by the association, foundation, or sponsors. On registration and membership renewal forms, ask for a $5 donation to the scholarship fund.

People consider both the price and value of programs when making a purchasing decision.  Don’t assume they’ll automatically understand a program’s real value. In marketing and program descriptions, lead with ROI.

#3: Career connections and relevance

Every research report about Gen Z and Millennials stresses their interest in professional growth and development. CAEL’s report says adult learners want to “improve their professional status, either by growing in their current role or moving into new positions upon completion of their credential.”

Help learners move up the career ladder by offering career coaching and other resources that can help them make the most of what they’ve learned. According to the CAEL report, top-performing institutions provide instruction on applying learning at work. Otherwise, what’s the point of teaching it?

As the value of a college degree has come into question, younger generations are hyper-aware of getting the best return on the time and money they invest in education. Ensure the relevance of your programs by regularly consulting with an employer advisory board who identifies the required competencies in different job roles. Let learners know your programs focus on the competencies that employers seek.

attract, support and retain adult learners by practicing constant evolution, as the message on this laptop screen says

#4: Diversity, equity, and inclusion

CAEL says, “Gaps in diversity efforts, recognition, and acceptance can result in students feeling like outsiders.” Don’t assume your programs have bridged these gaps. You’ll only know by talking with people who have and haven’t enrolled in your programs about any barriers they’ve encountered.

Are your programs (and is your association) even on the radar of underserved and BIPOC communities? It might be time to combine strengths by partnering with other groups who can help you reach and better serve new audiences.

#5: Student support and empowerment

It’s easy to forget that learners aren’t necessarily like you and your colleagues. They may come from different backgrounds and have different learning experiences, intellectual capabilities, and personal and professional responsibilities. Understand the barriers to learning and success these learners might experience.

Adult learners need an educational experience that realistically fits into their lives. They have to balance learning with other responsibilities, which is why so many of them have latched onto microlearning and microcredentials.

They want their past experience and learning to count toward certification or certificate programs. Offer assessments that allow them to test out of content. Don’t require degrees when experience can suffice.

CAEL recommends “front-loading advising and outreach” to help people adapt to the learning experience. Offer pre-program coaching sessions. Build orientation into the program so all learners have access to online learning success tips and resources. Provide feedback during the learning experience. Watch engagement metrics and reach out with support to struggling learners.

#6: Faculty and staff professional development

Whether they’re paid contractors or volunteers, instructors must become adult learning experts. Require every instructor and everyone on your team to complete a train-the-trainer program. Instructors must understand and apply the principles of adult learning so they can engage learners and enhance the value of your programs.

#7: Partnerships

Ideally, your association already has an employer advisory board or regularly meets with employers to:

•    Identify competencies needed by employees in different job roles
•    Develop learning and career pathways
•    Design credentialing programs of value to employers

CAEL suggests finding partnerships with external organizations that can expand your association’s capacity to create strong connections
between learning and the workplace. Investigate the possibilities for collaborating with workforce boards, employment-focused centers, trade unions, community organizations, and educational institutions.

By adopting these seven policies and practices, your association’s online education programs will become more visible and valuable to adult learners.

learner engagement
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