Five Critical Elements to Developing Effective Educational Programs for Working AdultsElizabeth Matthews | Assistant Professor in the Center for Worker Education, City College of New York
Working adults continue to encompass a significant share of the college student demographic. Working students often juggle family and personal responsibilities while attaining higher education. Fortunately, many colleges and universities are committed to increasing college access to wider ranges of prospective students via offering flexible course scheduling, online courses and programs as well as alternative methods of earning college credit.
To that end, there are five important factors to consider when designing educational programs for working adult students:
1. Alternative Mechanisms for Earning College Credit
Programs for working adults can take many forms—some are 100 percent asynchronous-online, others offer flexible class times on weekends and evenings as well as hybrid or flipped courses to reduce the face-to-face on campus requirement. Advances in technology have improved course delivery and research in online pedagogy and best practices have helped faculty members develop and provide high-quality online coursework. All of these flexible types of course delivery can provide a pathway for students to continue and complete further education. These options have proved quite successful in attracting working adults.
Despite the myriad of flexible attendance options, working students can easily become disheartened when beginning a new educational journey when they see that the road ahead is fairly long. Alternative mechanisms for achieving college credit can be an important option to consider and it may be highly cost effective for students and aid in retention and degree attainment. Certainly, we should never encourage a student to short-change their education in order to save a semester or two, however, it is important to recognize that many working students may be able to petition out of courses through prior learning portfolios (PLA), CLEP exams or other methods. It usually is best to present potential options to students at the beginning of their college studies so that they may begin to map out, in a preliminary manner, which courses they must take and which may potentially be credited through testing or portfolio work.
Another possible option that may be highly attractive to adult learners is a competency-based method of earning credit. In fact, some colleges have instituted entire programs of study organized in this manner. Using the competency based method, students earn college credit for meeting specific learning objectives though completing target assignments on their own schedule. In this model, students enroll in a course and then using a self-paced schedule complete the assignments for a given course during a predetermined time period (for example, 12 weeks, or 6 months). Assignments are graded by the college’s faculty. With this model, students earn credit by demonstrating their knowledge rather than earning credit through seat time.
2. Faculty Support & Development in Working with Working Professionals
Online and hybrid educational models have enjoyed great success and are continuing to gain acceptance as valid learning models. However, there are some pockets of lingering resistance to online courses or non-traditional methods of earning credit. For example, faculty frequently cite concerns regarding the quality of distance learning courses, lack of technological support/training and the ability of non-traditional methods (such as PLA) to truly equate with college-level learning.
Many of the objections can adequately addressed when administrators actively involve faculty in decision-making processes and listen to their concerns. One specific concern shared by many faculty revolves around the needed resources and support related to online pedagogy and technical maters. Providing training for faculty in online pedagogy, alternative credit earning methods and the needs of non-traditional students are all essential. In addition, faculty participation in these programs must be recognized with appropriate compensation and/or recognition and credit for tenure and promotion decisions. There should also be a pathway for continued professional development with regards to alternative educational methods and supporting the non-traditional student as well as access to regular technological and pedagogical support in the form of instructional designers or technology fellows who can provide feedback and promote an intellectual environment around the issues of non-traditional education.
Recognizing and addressing faculty needs and concerns can go a long way in improving educational quality as well as the student experience.
3. Opportunities for Working Students to Engage with Classmates/Faculty
Working students are busy and have many personal and professional obligations, however we should not assume that they do not want or need to have opportunities to engage with their classmates and faculty in meaningful ways. In fact, I argue that it is even more important for adult students to have opportunities for additional interaction so that they feel more connected to the college and to becoming part of a community of learners. Some research on online learning suggests that connection to the learning community can aid in student persistence and engagement with their studies. Possible avenues for supporting community building could include student clubs, opportunities for involvement in student governance, and research opportunities with faculty. In the long term this may lead to improved retention and graduation rates as well as higher levels of student satisfaction with the program.
4. Effective Student Support & Advising
Effective student support encompasses both student well being and academic preparation. Attending college can be a stressful experience for any student, however the working student often is attempting to juggle significant work, personal and family obligations along with their classes. High, chronic levels of stress can negatively impact students’ mood, self esteem and overall academic performance. Therefore, it is essential to have a mechanism for improving student well being. One-to-one advising can be incredibly helpful for spotting emotional or academic concerns early on and for providing students with a single contact for asking questions and addressing concerns.
Academic supports are essential since poorly prepared students will frequently experience extreme stress with their coursework. Some basic, yet important supports include student orientations (especially orientations to course platforms and technology) and resources for writing and/or academic remediation and development.
5. Pathways for Future Success
Many working students pursue higher education in order to be eligible for job-related promotions, growth in their current position, or to seek other career options. However, earning a degree is in itself not a guarantee of future career success. Programs that serve non-traditional students (and arguably, all students) should aim to incorporate services that will help students achieve their career goals. While college is not designed to provide vocational training, offering supports such as resume writing workshops, career search assistance and even “short courses” on technological advances that could benefit students in the workplace, do help to connect coursework with practical skills that will be beneficial for students at all stages of their career development.
Working students continue to be a growing segment of the college population, so it is essential that programs are designed with their unique needs and goals in mind. Proactively implementing needed support services can aid in improving program quality and student success.