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Lifelong Learning



What Motivates Adults to Complete Trevecca’s Adult Degree-Completion Program?


Bob Barnett, Bryan Simmons, and Phillip Whisnant (TNU 2007)


A vast amount of research and money is spent each year to help administrators in colleges throughout the country learn how to compete for students. In the past, the bulk of research dollars targeted the young, traditional, or pedagogic, student. For decades, the college students were recent high school graduates, young, inexperienced, and college administrators catered to their needs. The relationship of the counselors, staff, and faculty resembled that of a guardian with a maternal overtone. Over the past 20 years, instruction changed as much as the student did. Today, it might be hard to recognize the andragogic, or adult student returning to complete a degree from the professor. (Thoms p.1) Who are they, and what motivates them?


Little information is available until recent years on how to recruit and motivate the adult student. This is a result of new trends and needs in education today. Colleges reported as many as 40,000 adult students by the early 1980’s. In 1991, up to one-third of all undergraduate students were adult students. (Eschenmann, p. 1) This influx of adult learners caused colleges to scamper for curriculums and faculty members that are as unique as the adult learners are. In order to be successful, they had to identify what motivated the adult student.


What does the adult student look like? The average adult learner is a 35-year-old Caucasian female. She is married, a mother, from middle class households, and is active in community involvements. (Croix) The adult students have no need for a maternal figure since most are already parents. They have little need for career counseling since many seek higher education to accomplish professional goals. (Chyung, p. 2) The adult students take a tried and true route and stray away from risk taking. Because adults take mistakes so seriously, errors can often affect their self-esteem. They must be able to integrate new ideas and skills with what they already know. If they see no relevancy to the skills, they feel it is of little value and lose interest. (Zemke) Then why would colleges intentionally target the adult student?


Adult learners come from all lifestyles but they all have one thing in common. They have a strong desire to better themselves at work and in the community. Adults are goal-oriented and learning-oriented. (Chyung, p. 4) They are practical, respectful, and generally finish what they start. (Lieb, p. 1) As a student, they are serious about tasks they undertake. A parent or counselor tells a younger student of the great benefit they will receive in the future by obtaining a degree. The pedagogic student is nurtured, encouraged, and requires a higher degree of psychological support. They lack life experiences, which help motivate adults. The adult has been around. He finds himself experiencing limitations without a degree first hand. These limitations motivate the adult to obtain a degree to open closed doors. The employer of yesteryear that wanted experience now demands a degree. Adults advance to the point where there is no more advancement for them and their job becomes a dead end without a degree. (Barnes p. 1) The barrier that held them back for decades creates the strongest motivation for the adult learner. By removing the barrier, adults can realize an expected promotion at work. They control their own future by earning accreditation and licensing for advancement. They update their old skills with the latest technologies available and learn in order to comply with company policies. Some adults are motivated to obtain a degree in order to change careers altogether. Some adults may return to school out of boredom, and the need to seek knowledge for their own satisfaction. However, adults return to school out of need. (Lieb pg. 2)


When adults return to college, they do not require the psychological support and nurturing needed by their youthful counterparts. However, the adult students bring with them new needs of their own. Faculty and administrators deal with more limitations that are physical with an adult student. The veteran returning to college often comes back with a physical handicap. Adult learners may experience hearing impairments that prevent them from gaining instruction. Once the gray hairs adorn their heads, adults tend to suffer visual disabilities. The aging process causes the adult student to learn at a slower speed, although the depth of their ability to learn increases. (Barnes, p. 2)


Adult students tend to expect a traditional classroom environment. The breakdown in this pattern causes many adults to feel uncomfortable about returning to school. (Smith) Between distant learning classes and internet classes, the classroom changed drastically since the adult student attended school. These two stylized learning options take faculty-led instruction away from the student entirely. This could account for the high dropout rate among students. When the adult student attends the adult-degree completion class today, they find themselves sitting within a circle, conversing over business or humanities issues. They interact by delivering individual presentations and collaborative projects. The classroom dynamics tend to be diverse, mature, and professional. Class members use discussion groups and e-mail to communicate with each other. They routinely contact each other to offer stimulation and encouragement. (Croix)


Who teaches the adult student? Administrators seek out the best instructors available for the adult classroom. A unique and respectful individual must lead adults in the classroom. Instructors and professors often find themselves a decade (or two) younger than their student. Since the adult student is more mature and diverse in their backgrounds, age does not become a barrier. Control can become an issue in the relationship between instructor and adult student. The instructor is the leader in the classroom. Adult learners can resent handing over the control of their own lives. They have a natural need to have mastery regarding themselves. The instructor finds ways of incorporating choices with assignments and projects to provide balance in their education experience. (Barnes, p. 2) For an instructor to motivate adult students they must manage the processes and allow the student to manage the content. The adult learner is more effective with a facilitator instead of a lecturer. Instructors might vary their teaching strategies, but will always maintain two-way communication and responses. (Thoms p. 2)


Administrators and policymakers are striving to identify and understand what motivates the ever-changing nontraditional undergraduate. Over 70% of students enrolled in 1999-2000 wear the label of “nontraditional”. Age is just one of their many characteristics. (Choy, p. 2) It is difficult to address everything that factors in with adults reentering the college scene. By studying enrollment trends and patterns, colleges can successfully tailor class schedules to meet the demands and motivate their adult students. Regardless of how nontraditional a student is, some colleges realize phenomenal results.


Trevecca Nazarene University realized, as student’s age there needs change as their life changes. It takes a new approach and concepts to attract and motivate adult students. They offer an adult degree-completion course in Management and Human Relations. Trevecca proudly boasts to be the first program of this type offered in the Nashville, Tennessee area. They offer this program at their Nashville campus and four other locations throughout Tennessee including Crossville, Gallatin, Columbia, and Tullahoma and in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. The program both motivates and challenges adult students engaged in a career. It offers one night of classes each week without interrupting the work schedule of their students. The success of this program speaks for itself. Trevecca has a completion rate of over 90%. They successfully managed tailoring its faith based MHR program to the needs of its adult students. (Trevecca) We live in a country where only half of Americans ever attend college at all. Only one in four have a four-year degree. (Croix) It does not take a mathematician to see that Trevecca has done their homework!




Barnes, Letha. “Teaching Tips from the Career Institute.” Milady. 11 April, 2007 <>


Choy, Susan. “Nontraditional Undergraduates”. National Center For Education Statistics. Dec. 2002, 11-April-2007 <>


Chyung, Yonnie. “Improve the Motivational Appeal of Online Instruction for Adult Learners: What’s in it for Me?” 11 April 2007 <>


Croix, Wendy, “Today’s Adult Classroom.” WorldWideLearn. 2005, 11-April-2007 <>


Eschenmann, K. Kurt. “Myths in Motivating Adult Students.” 11 April 2007 <>


Lieh, Stephen. “Principles Of Adult Learning.” Vision. Fall 1991. 11-April-2007 <>


Smith, Judith M. “Adult Learning Styles.” 11 April 2007 <>


Thoms, Karen Jarrett. “They’re Not Just Big Kids: Motivating Adult Learners.” 11 April 2007 <>


Trevecca Nazarene University web site <>


Zemke, Ron and Susan. “30 Things We Know For Sure About Adult Learning.” Innovation Abstracts Vol VI, No 8. 9-Mar-1984, 11-April-2007 <>



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