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Adult Learners, America Needs You Back! (Part 1)

The EvoLLLution | Adult Learners, America Needs You Back! (Part 1)
Institutions must stop trying to reduce and generalize adult learners—and instead begin treating them as individuals with unique demands, goals and challenges—if we are to increase the attainment rate as needed.

Part I: The 2020 College Completion Goal: Adult Learners, We Want You Back!

Only 25 years ago, the United States was ranked first internationally in four-year degree attainment for 25- to 34-year-olds. Today, our rank has slipped down to number 12. The precipitous drop is worrisome not to educators alone, but is evidently also disturbing to the executive and legislative branches, which have attempted a multitude of educational initiatives over the years, including the recent 2020 College Completion Goal and free community college plans.

The national alarm is well founded because attrition equates to huge loss at every level. Individual, institutional and national stakeholders face very real consequences that range from financial to reputational and psychological consequences. In late October, the Lumina Foundation released its halfway mark strategic plan for Goal 2025, which aims to increase the proportion of Americans with higher learning credentials to 60 percent by 2025. This is undeniably a true national emergency. Everyone needs to get on board collectively to drive paradigmatic change. This is no time for despondency or caustic indictments. Let’s band together as a community of scholars and leaders, and become resolute in our mission to put theory and research into practice to help create forward momentum.

Part of the problem is that we have not yet truly listened to the experts. Over 60 years of retention research cautions that attrition cannot be solved with a one-size-fits-all panacea program. We need to apply multiple theories (learning theories, psychosocial theories, retention theories, adult transition theories, etc.) to the problem of adult learner persistence, and consider both the internal and external factors that influence the dropout or persistence decision. From the macro/national level down to the micro/university-course level, we have created marginalized, piecemeal solutions that do not address the multifaceted human being and their individual attributes and life situations, which causes attrition within our unique college environments. We must stop looking for a generalized cure and start by treating each student as an individual. The problem at one institution for one learner is not the same as another. How then, do we create solutions that are not cost-prohibitive? Here’s how: We embed the solutions within the entire infrastructure rather than treating them as add-ons.

The American student has changed a lot in recent decades. There aren’t enough 18- to 21-year-olds to solve the national degree attainment needs. We need to seek out learners in our non-degree holding adult population so that we can motivate and invite them back to formal education. Higher education can be the attractive light that stimulates adults to want to change their lives. We must make it attainable. We must realize and accept that adults are probably not attending for the love of learning, but rather the need for a sustainable future. They may attend to be a role model to their children, or complete a degree because someone in their lifetime told them they were incapable of it years ago. It does not matter why they come. It matters that we hold ourselves accountable by assessing outcomes and continuously improving those programs so that they are relevant. We need to embed support on academic, emotional and social levels. We must invite employers to examine our curriculum. We should give adults credit for what they already know, not force them to fit into the 18- to 21-year-old model of a rigid curriculum. We can do this. Innovative institutions already are, because regardless of one’s institutional mission statement, all of us have the same common mission to be accountable to our students’ success and accountable to our nation for the educational environment we provide that is conducive to that success. We can work together as a higher education community to better prepare them for their personal and professional dreams and for the sake of this nation so that they are ready for the jobs of tomorrow.

This is not simply a call to action and motivation. It’s a cheer of thanks to all those who already work toward this day in and day out: institutions, the Lumina Foundations, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others are all a part of our mission for an educated future workforce. It’s a call to save all of our futures by recommitting ourselves to what we know Americans can do best: build dreams and reach them.

The access and attrition problems worsen for underserved learners, including minorities, first-generation college students, adults, low-income students, as well as the military. Stay tuned for Part II of this series where we discuss how to recognize and eliminate the three types of barriers facing adult learners. The four-part series will run as follows:

Part I: The 2020 College Completion Goal: Adult Learners, We Want You Back!

Part II: Eliminating the Degree Attainment Barriers: Institutional, Dispositional and Situational

Part III: Research into Practice: The Blueprint for Military Postsecondary Retention

Part IV: Innovative Ideas to Support Students: Removing the Cost-prohibitive Barriers

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