Helping older adults go back to college

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Glossy college brochures often show smiling young people studying, writing and tailgating at beautiful college campuses. However, not all college students are age 18-22.

Students of all ages return to college every year to update their work skills and to prepare for new careers. At Jefferson State Community College in Alabama, we are committed to making our college a place where older students can thrive and find their place. Here are some effective strategies any college can use to do the same:

Make sure your older students feel like they belong. Do older adults see pictures of people who look like them in college brochures, or are only younger students featured? Prominently featuring older students in college marketing materials can show older students that the college wants them there and is committed to their success.

Reach the students where they are. Today, many colleges understandably emphasize the convenience of online features such as applying for admission, communicating with instructors, and checking grades electronically. Older students, however, may appreciate a different approach. For example, some older students are not comfortable with texting and may prefer a good, old-fashioned phone call.

In this era of instant communication, don’t forget to utilize the many communication options available. Using a student’s preferred communication mode will also personalize the college experience for the student.

Support your students. It’s not enough to get students enrolled if they do not complete their classes and go on to finish certificates, degrees or other credentials needed for a job. What tutoring services can you offer to support older students? What strategies can you use to check in on students throughout the semester? Early intervention can allow you to assist students before it is too late, leading to better outcomes for all.

Also remember student organizations are for all students, so be sure older students know they are welcome in campus clubs.

Prepare your students for today’s and tomorrow’s jobs. Computer skills are an absolute must for today’s workforce. Offer Word and Excel classes that go beyond basic data entry. Aim for students to leave your classes with the higher technological skills employers value.

Students also need to understand the process for applying for jobs is different than when they first entered the workforce. They need practice completing online applications and uploading supporting documents such as transcripts or resumes.

In addition, a job interview can be a nerve-wracking experience especially if you have not interviewed in over a decade. A mock interview is a great way for students to work through their nerves and gain confidence for their actual interviews. It also is a great way for others to offer gentle critiques, so students can shine and receive job offers.

Encourage students to own their age. Many students may see their age as a liability, but there are so many strengths that older workers possess. In addition to having a lifetime of experience, many of these students have mastered the “soft skills” that so many younger workers struggle with, including punctuality, tactfulness and problem-solving techniques.

Stress to your older students that they can sell themselves as an asset to their new workplaces. Before long, employers will be lining up to hire these students.

A community college truly is for all members of the community. Welcome older students with open arms and reap the benefits that come from working with these amazing adults.

About the Author

Liesl W. Harris
is an associate dean of transfer and general studies at Jefferson State Community College in Birmingham, Alabama.