It Only Takes One…But Should It? The Impact of Individuals on an Adult Learners’ Journey

Mark Hatcher, AIR
In partnership with Lumina Foundation, AIR is conducting a study to better understand adult learners’ educational journeys and, importantly, what institutions can change to better support those adults in pursuing their degree—especially adult learners who identify as Black or African American, Latino or Latina, or Indigenous. The full report on the study will be completed in summer 2023, but here we share early findings from the first phase of the study involving in-depth interviews with adult learners of color across multiple states.

Popular culture is full of stories, movies, and songs celebrating the exceptional efforts of singular individuals. From superhero movies dominating box offices to long-form articles exploring the lives of people trying to make a difference (e.g., Fortune Magazine’s 40 Under 40 or the featured interviews on “60 Minutes”), it’s easy to find celebratory tales of “heroes”—one person whose actions have a meaningful impact on others’ lives. The same is true in the stories of adult learners; there are often instances when one person had a significant impact on the learning journey of others.

In this piece, we’ll explore the roles that “one person” served in the narratives of the learners participating in an adult learners study (see sidebar)—as well as how postsecondary student success efforts traditionally have relied on staff and faculty taking on “hero” roles for learners, and whether that’s viable moving forward.

The adult learners we spoke with have narratives that cover a broad range of experiences and perspectives; however, we were able to surface instances where one key person had an impact on the learner’s education journey and found common threads across the roles those individuals played. Although learners often reflected on the support of a friend or family member, we focus here on how postsecondary faculty and staff took on the role of that “one person” for learners.

Supportive individuals often act as “information brokers” for adult learners seeking information about enrollment.

These individuals supported learners by pointing them to reliable sources that can inform the learners’ decision making. This support included directing learners to institutional websites, walking through the FAFSA, detailing the application process, and outlining specific degree program requirements.

Information brokers simplify learners’ information-gathering efforts by providing them reliable information. In some cases, the information brokers were institutional representatives, such as admissions officers or academic advisors; in others, they were another third party such as a nonprofit or community-based organization.

One adult learner detailed his experience with an advisor acting as an information broker, saying:

“She was like, ‘No, let's apply.’ Like, so we went, like went out with [be]cause she has kids and I have, I have one son. So she was like, ‘No, come to the house, I'll help you apply.’ And she was pretty much—I tell her, I was like, ‘You're my counselor,’ [be]cause she was like, ‘Apply for this, apply for this, apply for this.’ Like this program, that program.”

One key role is that of an “information broker” during the early phases of an adult learner’s journey when the learner is seeking information about enrollment. 

The roles played by information brokers, as our learners described, changed as decisions were made regarding whether and where to apply. Some learners didn’t mention their information brokers again; others found these brokers became mentor figures.

A mentor generally is understood to be someone who provides counsel, advice, motivation, encouragement, and social capital. Mentors can be well positioned to help their mentees navigate spaces where they lack experience. The learners we interviewed said their mentors provide such support. Institutional faculty and staff, as well as staff from community-based organizations and peers, all were identified as mentors.

One adult learner discussed how their mentor was a sort of catalyst for their decision to pursue a postsecondary credential, saying:

And, you know, [my mentor] was doing this internship and, you know, we, I know we just kind of connected. We used to talk and he asked me about it. He was like, ‘Well, Charles, you're a smart guy. Have you thought about school?’ And I'm like, ‘Well, not really,’ you know, I'm like, ‘Not really, I don't see how I can be realistic. You know, I'm, I'm older now and this and this and that.’ And he said, ‘Well, Charles, what if you would take one class?’ He said, ‘Just one. You think you can take one?’” (Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of our participants)

Relying on ad hoc heroic efforts of individuals leads to risks related to replicability and scalability.

The idea that a “hero” can act as an essential resource and support for learners is not an uncommon or novel idea in postsecondary education. Many student success initiatives center on the idea of learners building a relationship with one person, assuming that one person can and will provide many supports, such as guidance, encouragement, or mentorship. This approach is not without merit, as many learners—including some of those we spoke to—can attest. It does, however, carry some risks.

Many of our learners emphasized how important information brokers and mentors have been in their postsecondary education journeys. But relying on ad hoc heroic efforts of others—particularly those who have limited ways to ensure a consistent experience throughout—leads to risks related to replicability and scalability.

One such risk is the challenge of replicability. Our learners described interactions with many individuals over the course of their education journeys; only a few of those individuals rose to the level of information brokers or mentors. Creating and building such relationships requires more than just positioning staff and faculty members to be helpful. It also calls for vulnerability, transparency, and trust building.

But this is not always the case; several learners mentioned instances where they were disappointed because a staff member at an institution provided inadequate information or was inaccessible altogether. Additionally, learners come to the table with experiences that inform how they move through their educational journey, and a “hero” figure who does not have or understand a similar experience may struggle to build a connection.

An approach that relies on faculty or staff providing one-on-one support for learners needs sufficient available personnel to support scaling. Many such initiatives fall on those in student-facing roles, including academic advisors and coaches, staff in student affairs functions, and adjunct faculty who teach general education courses. In addition, research shows that when faculty and staff mentor learners with whom they share similar racial and ethnic identities, those learners’ academic performance and satisfaction improves.

Although this research has led institutions to be more intentional about providing such supports, it also means that providing support to learners of color might fall disproportionately on faculty of color with already large, sometimes overwhelming workloads. For instance, a small number of Black faculty members with already limited bandwidth might be expected to support a large number of Black students. Still, limited resources at many institutions means that hiring new personnel is not always feasible. Reliance on already overburdened faculty and staff to provide one-on-one support is unsustainable.

Looking ahead: Exploring the processes, systems, and structures that shape adult learners’ experiences

The contributions that one person can make to an adult learner’s journey are crucial; we imagine every reader of this piece can point to one key person who made an outsized impact at some time in their life, whether it related to education or not. The adult learners we spoke to are no different: Having that “one person” in education can be a powerful ally, advocate, and resource along their journey. Their stories, however, also highlighted the risks of our systems depending on one person to make it possible for all, especially at scale.

Our study is focused on better understanding processes, systems, and structures that shape adult learners’ educational journeys, including what is and is not transparent to them when they make decisions to enroll and (re)start their journeys. These early findings, based on in-depth interviews conducted in early 2022, shed light on facets of adult learners’ experiences like the impact of “one person” whose advice and mentorship was critical to the continuing learners’ education. The final report, based on a broader survey of adult learners, will be released in summer 2023 and explore more deeply this topic and others that affect the educational trajectories of adult learners. For more information about the study, please visit our website.