CEHD assistant professor Matt Bergman
CEHD assistant professor Matt Bergman

Adults returning to college need a “better deal.”

That’s according to University of Louisville researcher Dr. Matt Bergman. His research, titled “A Better Deal for Returning Adults,” focuses on developing a strategy for schools that helps adult learners matriculate and overcome the many variables that might keep them from their diploma.

Bergman’s research, funded via a “Game Changer” grant from Complete College America, begins with the application process, which he said can often be confusing and seemingly insurmountable for returning adult students.

“We’re trying to create pathways where they log on, (and) have a concierge-type service,” said Bergman, an assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Development. The idea is that they fill out the boxes to complete their application materials online, then are enrolled very quickly.

Bergman said many students also worry that they will have to take entrance exams that cover material they learned years ago. He said part of the problem is that much of the higher education system is still geared toward traditional students who start at or around age 18.

But in the UofL undergraduate Organizational Leadership and Learning program, he said, the average student is just under 40 years old. Students in that program range in age from their 20s to their 70s.

“Colleges and universities are getting better at this,” he said. “They’re starting to remove those barriers, because they understand that this entire pipeline of individuals is not this natural linear path to graduation,“ like traditional age students who complete an undergraduate degree in four years.

Bergman said UofL is already working to help adult learners succeed, including by making the application process easier and less confusing. Information tailored to adult learners is available online, and some programs have begun accepting work experience in lieu of test scores.

Many programs, he added, also make it easier for enrolled students by offering part-time schedules, online classes and prior-learning credit for work experiential learning. And are tailoring their course work so it applies to the students’ real lives — which Bergman’s research shows is important.

“What we find is that if we do not have very relevant and connected curriculum, we’re (more likely to) lose them,” he said. “So they have to see the tangible value of the study that they’re doing.” 

On a related note, Bergman’s writing a book to highlight some adult learning successes, which he’s called Unfinished Business: Compelling Stories of Adult Student Persistence. As just one example, he notes a UofL student who graduated in May at the age of 72.

“She had that long-held goal, and we made the pathway clear,” he said. “It’s just an absolutely beautiful thing.”

Listen to Bergman’s entire interview on “UofL Today with Mark Hebert.”

Baylee Pulliam leads research marketing and communications at UofL, building on her experience as an award-winning business, technology, health care and startups reporter. She is a proud product of the UofL College of Arts and Sciences, where she earned her undergraduate degree in English. She also holds an MBA, a Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership and is pursuing a Ph.D. in the latter with a focus on corporate innovation.