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The Bucket List – The Three Pain Points Impacting Adult Student Success

August 18, 2014 Digital Media Solutions

Mary was one of those students that college enrollment and marketing leaders dream of. She was an adult degree completer, particularly excited to finish her degree. She was a middle manager, eligible for promotion with her bachelor’s degree and definitely ready to enroll. Everything was going great until her first class. Mary enrolled in MATH101 Intro to Algebra, even though she hadn’t seen algebra in 10 years! She was frustrated — if her first class was this hard, what chance did she have for her next 25? She lost confidence, decided “maybe later” and was gone.

As someone with experience overseeing an online campus, I know firsthand how difficult finding qualified, interested students can be. When an eager, ready-to-enroll candidate comes along, it’s very tempting to go full speed ahead.

There are 36 million adults in the U.S., age 25 and over, with some college and no degree. This means they started college, but then something happened and they couldn’t finish. For many of these non-traditional students (adult, military, degree completers, etc.), there are dangers that can impact their retention and completion rates, despite their eagerness to enroll. These dangers typically fall into one of three “buckets,” and recognizing the challenge is just the first step.

The Bucket List:

  1. Lack of Academic Preparedness
  2. Lack of Financial Preparedness
  3. Lack of Personal Preparedness

Each of these is detailed below along with the challenge and a simple solution that can be implemented to help students get past these preparedness issues.


Lack of Academic Preparedness

Like Mary, many adults students have been away from school for a while or maybe weren’t great students to start with. Regardless of the reason, academic preparedness can be impacted by both a lack of capability and confidence.

Assessments and remediation can offer significant assistance in academic preparedness.

Reminding students of their basic academic building blocks leads to confidence of what comes afterwards. As an example, once a student remembers the “order of operations” in algebra, the formulas come easier. They are then better prepared from a confidence and academic preparedness standpoint. Other resources such as tutors, student support, online tools (e.g. Kahn Academy) for students are great, but aren’t tools that are used before the enrollment. Preparedness for academic success is a major retention difference.

Lack of Financial Preparedness

The cost of education is all the rage these days in media, politics and social commentary. Tuition is too high, financial aid is too confusing and the return on investment is a question. For the student that has already decided education is the key to their future, it’s tempting to assume they’ve gotten past the questions about cost. Yet when exploring the reasons behind student drops, many cite the cost or the financial aid (FA) process as a primary element. These were students that were not prepared for the financial reality of paying for their education for a number of reasons, some of which may be familiar to you:

  • Students who nodded in understanding during the FA discussion, but in reality were simply too embarrassed to ask a question
  • Students whose plan to pay for education was based on family, employer, savings or “I’ll figure it out” and that went unquestioned during the admissions process
  • Students who don’t take advantage of discounts or scholarships as part of the admissions process and make a compromise somewhere – stretching budgets, loans beyond their means, etc. – to get in school, making for a fragile commitment
  • Students who simply aren’t presented with the FA reality up front and engage in the admissions process without keeping the FA reality in mind

Proper financial preparedness requires a financial discussion up front and central as part of the admissions process. Including the estimated award calculation as part of the initial interview can really help create context around the value of the education. Also require the student to explain their financial plan – including tuition reimbursement, Pell Grants, Stafford Loans, private loans, etc. – to you so you can confirm effectiveness, find and work through the gaps in knowledge and prepare the student financially.

Lack of Personal Preparedness

It’s obvious non-traditional students face personal issues not experienced by a typical high school graduate. Family, work, military commitments, moving, new job and more are personal issues competing with education on the priority list. For students attending school online, these personal issues are a big part of seeking the flexibility of distance learning. However, just as it’s easy to log in when it’s convenient, it’s equally as easy to decide NOT to log in when priorities interfere.

There’s no way to predict what will happen in the lives of non-traditional students, but we can help them prepare for the inevitable disruptions. Addressing personal challenges during the admissions process and a required orientation process can help prepare students. A key element in the orientation should be time management, which can be demonstrated through a simple yet eye-opening exercise:

  1. In the beginning of the course, ask students to fill in every hour of a weekly calendar. Work, chores, kid events, commuting, sleep, eating, etc.
  2. At the tail-end of orientation, ask students to describe how many hours per week they plan to commit to their coursework — including reading, group discussion, homework, papers and any other relevant assignments.
  3. Ask students to take the time commitments in #2 and REPLACE items in #1. The key message is that students cannot simply assume they can add school to their busy schedules. They have to give something up – a shorter lunch break, or maybe the Sunday live viewing of Game of Thrones – something that will allow them the time to deal with school in their daily routine, but also have the buffer when something unexpected comes up.


Making sure the idea of getting a degree is replaced with the reality of the effort to get a degree is a big first step towards ensuring that students are personally prepared for your institution.

Looking at these big buckets and implementing strategies within them as part of the admissions process is key to ensuring that your students are prepared to succeed in your program. In my experience there’s no silver bullet to addressing retention issues, but preparation on the part of the student combined with specific action items pre-enrollment are a definite and necessary first step.


Need help with higher education recruitment? DMS can help. Contact us today to learn more.

About the Author

Digital Media Solutions

Digital Media Solutions, Inc. (NYSE: DMS) is a leading provider of technology and digital performance marketing solutions leveraging innovative, performance-driven brand and marketplace solutions to connect consumers and advertisers. DMS proprietary technology solutions, significant proprietary media distribution and data-driven processes help large brands steadily acquire more customers. For more information visit

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