Adult learners and student parents were already juggling competing demands before COVID-19, but the crisis has amplified those challenges. Many of the nation’s 6 million nontraditional students now find themselves scrambling to keep up with online learning, weather layoffs, and take care of children as daycare centers close.
In addition, “some of them don’t have access” to the internet or laptops, Hadass Sheffer, founder and president of the Graduate Network, which supports adult students, told The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Some of them have not yet learned how to learn online. Some people are in fragile mind-sets right now, and so learning probably is not a high priority.” That may be especially true for adult students who work in the military, medical fields, or other roles on the front lines of the coronavirus response, said Matt Bergman, an assistant professor in the University of Louisville’s department of educational leadership, evaluation, and organizational development.
Bergman also cautions that adult learners are more likely than younger college students to pause their education during trying circumstances, preferring to take a break rather than see their grades plummet. “They are driven by getting that A and showing that they’re worthy of that,” he said. “Oftentimes they’re carrying a lot of baggage when they return, because they weren’t successful the first time around.”
Student parents especially strained
Student parents, and single mothers in particular, have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. “They were already vulnerable to begin with,” Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, told Inside Higher Ed. “Their economic insecurity was already pretty stark,” given that around 90 percent of single mothers live in poverty or have insufficient incomes. Many are not only navigating their own transition to online learning but also being asked to help their children learn online as schools close.
Colleges and universities are finding ways to help adult learners adjust to their new normal. Maryland’s Montgomery College is offering stipends to help its students access technology like laptops or Wi-Fi, and is compiling information online to guide student parents. Indiana-based Purdue University is checking in with students individually, given that adult learners are especially likely to feel isolated. Other schools are offering pass/fail options and extending deadlines for coursework.
A call to better serve today’s college students
Writing for The Hechinger Report, Sara Goldrick-Rab, the founding director of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University, says the coronavirus pandemic has just exposed what many students already knew: inequalities in higher education and insufficient financial aid leave America’s most vulnerable students at risk.
Goldrick-Rab calls on higher education leaders and policymakers to “allow this crisis to force us to get real about who today’s college students are, and what it takes to help them succeed.” She continues, “It’s hard to learn—online or in person—if you haven’t eaten or slept. The vast majority of college students are juggling work and school, and an estimated 4.3 million of them have children. Their basic needs must come first.”