Scaling Up for Adult Students Requires Focus and CreativityAlfred Ntoko | Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs, Empire State College
Adult—or non-traditional—students represent an increasingly large part of the total student population. It makes sense that institutions of higher learning prepare for ways of meeting the needs of this important demographic.
Jovita Ross-Gordon describes the adult student population as having at least one (but often more) of the following characteristics:
- Entry to college delayed by at least one year following high school
- Having dependents
- Being a single parent
- Being employed full time
- Being financially independent for financial aid purposes
- Attending part time
The important point to note is that this population has considerable variation. To provide wider levels of access and services to the adult population, it is important to meet the students where they are. That can depend on the skill set of the students, the technology infrastructure available to both students and institutions and the menu of learning options available. These learning options might include individualized instruction, online and blended instruction, the use of prior learning assessment and competency-based curricula.
These students also have different objectives and goals. Some students seek personal growth through reflection and personal exploration. This group might actually include persons who are retired and wish to explore some aspect of life that they could not do when they were working full time. I am sure that most of us have that burning desire to write a book but have not had the time to learn how to do so. Others in this group might still be trying to find themselves and to decide on a career path. Yet another cohort might be interested in continuing education for professional growth. They seek to maintain currency with developments in their chosen professional fields and they see the institution as a source for such upgrades. Others might be seeking changes in careers or professions due to changes in the economy.
Given the growing numbers in this population segment, a lot of discussion is taking place about how to scale up efforts designed to serve this population. The nature of the population and the specific problems facing the population should inform the planning and implementation of scaling efforts directed at this population. This means that scaling up could be quite difficult and potentially very costly.
Even though adult students engage institutions of higher learning with different motives, there are some generalizations that can be made about this population. One is that time management is of critical importance to most adult students because time is an important constraint for most adult learners. This means that from the beginning of the interaction between the students and the institution, many adult students are interested in precise information about what they will need to do in order to get the sought after credential, how long it will take to do so and how much it will cost them.
Adult learners as a group tend to be more focused on the desired outcomes of their learning experiences and are very concerned about the return on investment. Labor market relevance and the economic benefits derived from having the particular credential are important considerations for adult learners as they engage with institutions. They tend to place a premium on relevance and the quickest way to get to their goals. The traditional time needed to earn a degree may be too long for adult students. Thus alternative methods for credentialing needed to be used. For adult students, certificates may be a quicker way to get credentials
The other necessities of life impact the ability of adult and non-traditional students to use support services and access to learning activities. Institutions need to find creative ways of tailoring services and learning activities to accommodate the varied needs of the diverse adult student population. Some leaders such as Brian Bosworth have argued that student support services should be embedded directly into courses the students are taking rather than offered separately.
There are some other ways of enhancing the student experiences. For example, it is often accepted that experiences that include working with peers from other countries and cultures are of immense value as part of the educational process. For traditional students (18- to 22-year-old, first-time, full-time) this sometimes takes place in study abroad programs. The adult student might not be able to take advantage of these kinds of trips. An example of a creative way of providing a similar experience may be through Collaborative and International Online Learning (COIL) sponsored by the State University of New York. This was designed in part to extend the enriching benefits of international education to a broader spectrum of students and faculty than are presently able to study abroad, and to encourage and support the development of courses incorporating international collaborations that have a significant online component. Through COIL students are able to work with peers from other countries on class projects and experiences without having to travel to other countries.
Given the different possible needs of the adult students, how might institutions scale up services to accommodate this population?
At Empire State College the standard operating practice is to meet the students where they are and to provide the access and services that enable them to meet their goals. For some adult students who are in the exploratory stage of their higher education journey, this involves an educational planning exercise where faculty mentors guide learners through a process of designing an individualized degree program after some reflective thinking about their goals.
For other students the need is to quickly acquire a desired credential which will yield some economic value-added to their professional aspirations. For this group, carefully designed certificate programs are the answer. This group includes students who might already have a degree, but changes in the economic environment necessitate an upgrade or a supplement in their skill set. Others might not have any desire for a degree. Their immediate need is a credential which facilitates entry into a profession or some meaningful employment.
Empire State College values learning gained through life and work experience and has a clear process for assessing and awarding credit for college-level learning gained through experience. Consequently, we have built up considerable expertise in prior learning evaluation and assessment. To the extent that students get credit for life and work experiences that can be applied to the degree time needed to get a credential is reduced. This also could reduce the cost to the student of getting the said credential.
In order to provide access to more adult or non-traditional students, institutions will need to focus on them as part of their mission. It is not going to be optimal to just graft serving adult students to the rest of the institution as an afterthought. It should be a core purpose of the institution. It has to be built in flexibility in programs, learning modalities, scheduling and the provision of academic support services as this becomes an increasing part of the portfolio of institutions.
The mission of Empire State College has always been to serve adult students, but we have to continually re-evaluate and reassess our students’ needs in order to stay current and competitive in this ever-expanding area.
Author Perspective: Administrator