5 Factors Impacting Adult Learners' Persistence at Your Institution

Last updated on: June 1, 2022

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Higher education can provide both measurable and intangible returns, such as a greater lifetime income, increased personal fulfillment, societal benefits, and more. However, it can be easy for adult students to lose sight of these outcomes while in a higher education program due to the financial costs, decreased time spent with friends and family, and the stress of balancing coursework with one’s other responsibilities. For institutions to retain their adult learners, it’s important that they incorporate support strategies throughout the student journey that keep these students engaged and remind them about the future payoffs of their commitments and sacrifices.

Adult learners have many reasons for pursuing higher education (see The Four Types of Adult Learners to learn more about their different types of behaviors, motivations, and needs), and it’s important for colleges and universities to understand these reasons in order to provide the right support.

Below are five major factors that can affect adult students’ engagement and persistence throughout a program. While some may seem obvious, pay close attention — these unique factors can have direct service implications on actions institutions should take to support and engage their students.


Students should never feel alone. It is important for them to feel they have others to support them along their educational path. This includes friends and family who can pitch in to cook meals, watch kids so a student can put in extra hours on a paper, or help students recover from an emotional setback such as a sub-par grade.
It is also important for an institution’s student services team members to both be a part of this network and also have visibility into each student’s unique support system to identify problems and provide recommendations. This will help with brainstorming, problem solving, and navigating difficult situations. In addition, if someone in the student’s network is not being supportive, such as a manager or spouse, it is important to arm the student with tactics for engaging in conversations with those individuals or help to identify others who can contribute in a positive way.


It is essential for programs designed for busy adult learners to begin with a solid foundation of relevant learning objectives, community elements driving a sense of belonging, feedback loops, and engaging activities that support aptitude, mastery, and competency. A few of the most important elements of such a foundation include a well-organized and motivating instructor presence, thoughtful collaboration with peers, appropriate usage of technology, and an active, varied learning approach.


Most students have a desire to develop pride and confidence in themselves, attach meaning to their work, and persist despite challenges. For institutions, it is essential to empower students to set their own goals, direct them to relevant resources, and — most importantly — show them that they are in control of their academic career.
This is not dissimilar to conversations human resources departments have with employees in respect to owning their career path within organizations. Institutions can and should provide ample support resources, but ultimately it is up to each student to take advantage of them. These types of learner motivations may also be intensified when coupled with outward-facing rewards such as employer visibility, promotions, community recognition, etc.


Higher education is a lot to juggle for even the most energetic, highly organized professional. While moments of lapsed judgment, instances of lackluster academic performance, or missed deadlines may induce panic in some students, the ability to learn lessons and bounce back from mistakes is important. Student support counselors, faculty, and advisers should be available to provide feedback, coaching, and suggestions that help students to continue focusing on the future.


Developing a service orientation is a critical skill for advisors, support and administrative professionals, and even academics. Teamwork, information sharing, and clear communications plans make it easier for the student to identify who they should approach when they need assistance. Additionally, advisers and faculty should develop the skill of being able to identify when proactive communication and intervention is needed.
When a student starts doubting their decision to invest in education or loses sight of their intrinsic motivation to complete the program, it is an opportunity for support personnel to revisit and reacquaint the student with their original motivation and purpose for pursuing higher education.

Adult learners are different from traditional students. By putting plans, resources, and strategies in place to meet their specific needs, institutions have a much better chance of encouraging them to finish, even in the face of potential challenges and setbacks. To learn more about who these learners are and their specific needs, see our infographic, The Four Kinds of Adult Learners.

To get more insight on the needs, motivations, and expectations of different generations of adult learners, check out this article. To learn more about other commonly asked online learning questions, check out our resources page for additional suggestions and information.

Tara Murphy

Senior Director, University Partnerships
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