The EvoLLLution | The Post-Traditional Learner and Institutional Readiness
Re-invention is not easy, but institutions that wish to serve the growing and lucrative market of adult students need to adapt to ensure they are meeting the unique needs of this demographic.

In the current educational environment with increased tuition diversification pressures, programming options for post-traditional learners compose a significant opportunity for higher education institutions, with historical similarities to the post-WWII environment. The opportunities in the post-traditional market exist in degree-completion programs for the many adult learners who have college credits, but lack an undergraduate degree, as well as graduate, or certificate credentialing.

In order to serve the post-traditional market, an institution needs to consider several attributes to strengthen its appeal to this important market segment.

Program Content

At U.S. institutions, the typical undergraduate core represents 50 percent of the degree requirements. Many adult learners re-entering the higher education arena bring some of the knowledge found in the traditional core from prior learning experiences. Higher education institutions serving undergraduate post-traditional learners need to support the credentialing of that prior knowledge by being post-traditional friendly. Many institutions that specialize in the post-traditional market encourage adult learners to return with various approaches for the competency-based models that include ACE credentialing, CLEP exams, end-of-course exams, portfolio submissions, and other approaches where content instruction is not required for assessment. The institution that is planning to serve the undergraduate post-traditional audience needs to consider these programming options and allow more flexible course transfer policies than it allows for traditional learners. On the other hand, adult learners who re-enter the higher education market after a long recess frequently have some nervousness about the concepts they have not used for a while. Frequently, the content that is articulated is related to algebra and calculus. If the student is going to enroll in a major/class that is heavy in use of these subjects, perhaps some sort of a refresher might be appropriate for the student’s academic success.

The motivation of the post-traditional learner that is re-entering graduate higher education can be either for career enhancement or for career change. In either case, the motivation is more career-centered and the programs being sought are frequently for preparation in a professional field such as accounting, teaching, nursing, project management, cybersecurity, etc. Post-traditional learners do not have much patience with subjects in the curriculum that do not have a direct link to the area that they are seeking to move into. Therefore the professional programs need to be clear about the specific learning outcomes and how the individual courses fit into the development for the profession. The content has to be current and connected with the emerging trends in the field.

Delivery Format

Post-traditional learners have to deal with many responsibilities while attaining their educational goals, making the convenience of the format a major attribute during their search for the right program. With alternative formats, they have greater choices. While purely face-to-face formats have seen a decline in enrollments, online and hybrid formats have experienced an increase. The brick-and-mortar programs are being challenged. Post-traditional learners need information about the time demands they will experience by entering into the new program they are seeking. The program designers need to strongly consider the preferences of the audience that they are planning to serve. Hybrid programs have allowed course designers to choose the course components that are more suitable for face-to-face versus those that are well suited for the online component of the instruction. The millennial population has started entering the graduate programming market. They are known to be comfortable with technology and impatient with the long time commitment required by traditional graduate programs. Boot camp and short-residence programming formats are preferred by this audience. Stackable credentials and badges that might lead to a graduate degree have gained popularity in certain fields.

Approaches for Instruction

The role of the instructor in a post-traditional learner classroom needs to be quite different. Mature students bring many experiences, particularly if the program is in a professional discipline. The instructor should do less content delivery through the traditional lecture and be more of a course conductor who leads the class with active participation. A faculty member who might do very well in the traditional classroom may not do that well with the adult learner audience if the approach is not adjusted. The post-traditional classroom has the added advantage of adult learners with professional experiences and maturity and it is the faculty’s role to create an interactive experience without losing control of the class and its goals. The institution needs to consider approaches for faculty development that involve successful adult learner engagement no matter what the selected format is. For example, at my institution we have a “Collaboration Online” course where we seek to prepare faculty for online teaching pedagogy. We have since incorporated an advanced course for those faculty who want to go beyond the four-week introductory online course. These efforts have resulted in the formation of online teaching communities across the institution where faculty share tools and techniques for increasing adult learner engagement in online and hybrid classes. I have no doubt that these types of efforts have improved student learning.

Student Support and Services

The post-traditional learner is likely to come back to higher ed with a busy career, family responsibilities, and new financial pressures. Student services, such as curricular advisement, course registration, and bursar, have to be adult-learner friendly for the institution to stand out from the typical brick-and-mortar institution serving traditional students. Adult learners are not coming to campus during the day for these services and they are actually not coming to campus at all if they are enrolled in an online program. The administrators of the programs need to prepare their institution for this market, and support from institutional leadership will be needed for the transformation. Our traditional students are very much engaged socially with the institution with activities geared for them. The adult learners do not have the interests or the time to attend these events. Institutions need to consider the educational goals of post-traditional learners and how they can be served in formats that are suitable for them. I encourage us to measure how much email and other communication our adult learners receive from various offices that is not relevant for them. According to research by the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), one area that has not received enough attention from most higher ed institutions that serve post-traditional students is how well we are performing in retaining them. Traditional student retention is a measure to which the university leadership gives significant attention, and academic and social interventions for those students are found across the campus. For a higher education institution to stand out from the rest of the competition, there needs to be mechanisms set in place to measure retention. The institution needs to further investigate the causes for attrition, such as financial challenges, a mismatch of the program with the student’s interest whether it is the program format or content, availability of the classes, and changes in the student’s personal environment. The institution that can consider which interventions might be appropriate for the post-traditional market it serves will position itself to be more successful.

In summary, if the institution is serious about entering, staying, or expanding in the post-traditional learner market, it needs to re-invent itself. The institution might consider expanding its brand to be a post-traditional friendly institution while not losing its existing edge with the traditional student audience. The competition is fierce and the prospective post-traditional student has more choices.

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