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Removing Barriers to Accessibility for Adult Learners

Adult learners have become the majority demographic in higher ed, so it’s critical for institutions to adapt to meet their needs to survive and thrive in this new shift.  

Adult learners are becoming the new traditional demographic in higher ed, which means institutions need to adapt. Without shifting to a business mindset, higher ed is threatened by companies looking to deliver the short-term programming learners demand in this new environment. In this interview, Russell Lowery-Hart discusses the importance of focusing on serving adult learners, removing barriers to accessible education and engaging learners over their lifetime. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it so important for modern colleges and universities to focus on serving adult learners?

Russell Lowery-Hart (RLH): When you look at enrollment trends—aside from it being the right thing to do socially—it is going to be the imperative thing to do economically. If you look at population shifts and where enrollment might grow in higher education, it’s not going to be in the typical 18-year-old; it’s going to be among adults who are already working just need a credential to advance in their career. So, if institutions don’t want to focus on adults out of the social goodness of their hearts, they need to do it for economic reasons.

Evo: Why is there such a cultural impediment to shaping post-secondary institutions for more diverse audiences?

RSL: I spend so much time trying to understand why so many of my colleagues are incapable of re-imagining higher education for the world we live in rather than the world we used to live in. But higher education is built on decades, if not centuries, of tradition, and we’re slow to adapt—to our own peril. The difference in adapting now as opposed to 30 years ago is that now we’re in a business environment. If we can’t adapt, a for-profit company will, and we’ll be on the outside looking in, wondering what happened. Our future depends on our ability to adapt in ways that we’ve never had to previously.

Evo: What are some of the common challenges that adult learners face when it comes to accessing and succeeding in a post-secondary institution?

RSL: Some things that we hold very dear within higher education are a schedule that privileges classes from 9 AM to 12 PM, when most of our adults are working, caring for family members or raising a family. The biggest impediment for adults in higher education is higher education entities that won’t offer alternative access points to education, that want to force the student to adapt to the institution rather than spending a lot less time and money adapting the institution for the students we could serve. Translating our offerings to an adult learner who may not see the value initially in a college algebra class because they feel like they’ve been growing that skillset for 20 years and finding ways to give them credit for the experiences they can demonstrate. There are many barriers, and we tend to put potential adult students through the ringer to access them.

Evo: How can institutions remove some of those barriers and start creating more on-ramps and potentially off-ramps for folks looking to access education?

RSL: At Amarillo college, I used secret shoppers to help define and write the values for the perfect college for our students—and really what they wanted was simplicity, and process and access. They wanted responsiveness, good customer service and a flexible and accelerated schedule. So, we’ve been offering night and weekend programs with eight-week classes. We were losing the majority of our student at weeks ten, eleven, and twelve, when they didn’t see the finish line close enough to maintain some hope.

We listened to our students who felt like they needed a college that saw them for who they are and offered them support. Adult students don’t need a comedian, a dance or a football game. They need a mom’s day out that allows them to work on their resume or practice interviewing—or, God forbid, take a nap while someone is engaging their kids. They need events like movies to which they can bring their entire family. They need support in different ways than we typically offered before. So, it wasn’t just about offering a schedule that allowed them to find class times in the afternoons, evenings and weekends, but offering ways through which they could engage their entire family in the process of going to college. They may also be caretakers for their parents and the family breadwinners while we’re trying to educate them in the classroom. We had to see all of that and put structures in place to support it rather than trying to ignore it.

Evo: Part of the community mission is socioeconomic development, and creating a college-going culture starts with providing visibility into what the college is. How do you guys pay for this? 

RSL: When people look at what we’ve done at Amarillo college with free, integrated and required tutoring in all of our classes, with social service interventions with social workers connecting our students to supports for their families outside the classroom, for coaching and invasive advising, I’m always asked this question, how can you afford it? Because it’s a good question, a fair question. And my answer is you can’t afford not to do it, which always frustrates people. We have increased retention by 12% simply by offering these wraparound support services and alternative schedules. So, you don’t just grow your enrollment, you increase your retention. And our retention calculator helps us figure out where we target our budget and interventions. For every student you save, how much does that add to the bottom line? 

When we provided those things, we grew our financial position rather than hurting it. So, the question isn’t how can you afford it; by not doing them, you’re saying this group of students isn’t important enough to change what you’ve been doing, because there isn’t a financial reason not to do it.

Evo: How important is business-mindedness to managing community-oriented public community colleges?

RSL: It’s really important—more important now than it’s ever been. And the more we resist, the more at risk we make our sector. Running like a business doesn’t mean you ignore the social purpose that we all share, but there are business practices that we can learn from in serving our customers, being more effective and efficient, then supporting them through degree completion and graduation. There are business structures we can look at—and have to look at—to be more financially efficient and effective, as well as better serve our students. We don’t get to live in a bubble anymore where we can say we’re institutions of higher learning, and we’re devoid of financial, political and social pressures. We’re at a point now where, if we can’t figure out how to embrace more budget effectiveness and customer responsiveness, there are going to be companies that replace us and make money off of our inability to transition.

Evo: How can colleges start to leverage tools like microcredentials and stackable credentials to create more cohesive and comprehensive pathways for learners to stay engaged over the course of a lifetime?

RSL: It’s really critical that students see a path to a better life, to more financial effectiveness and freedom. At Amarillo college, our students are working two part-time jobs while they attend school and raise a family. It’s impossible to ignore the pressures that go along with that and think that we can say, okay, here’s your path. In three years, you can get a two-year associate degree, then transfer to university. What we found—and the way we’ve been able to dramatically and quickly increase our completion rates from 19% to 58%—was that stackable and microcredentials were the answer. A working student can earn a credential in eight weeks, or twelve weeks or 16, and then they can work and improve, get a $2 an hour raise at their job, then come back in the summer and get the second credential or see a path within a year. It’s breaking down that two- to three-year pathway to an associate degree and having each credential improve their financial position. Breaking it down, not just by the credential but by the financial impact, has been really important to giving our students hope and seeing why they need to take the path. They taste success, and once you have success, it’s easier to then matriculate into the next level of success. 

The other thing we’ve had to acknowledge about this process is that we’ve had to show our students the financial outcome for each credential. And to be honest with them and ourselves, if there’s not a financial increase in the credential, then we have to question whether we really need it. Sometimes that credential is important because it’s on the pathway to another credential that pays a family-sustaining wage. But in other cases, the credential itself is just not important and we’ve had to stop offering it. Otherwise, we’re just taking money from students to get a credential or degree that doesn’t fundamentally improve their professional or personal life. And we just can’t do that anymore.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about this renewed vision or reoriented mission for what the college is and how to pivot to deliver on that?

RSL: Listen, we’re all adept at serving the 18-year-old—and that 18-year-old needs us—but we’re not going to reimagine our economy with skillsets that will lead to the innovation that this new economy requires on the backs of 18-year-olds alone. We actually have more adults with work-based skills, experience and willingness. They just don’t see themselves being successful in higher education often because our messaging doesn’t appeal to them, and our processes don’t honor them. If we can pivot and make ourselves more user-friendly, more responsive to all students, we’ll not only grow our own financial position, but we can help re-imagine our local and then national economy. I think our country’s future rests on our ability to engage these adults with the same veracity and intentionality we do a graduating high school senior.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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