Published on 2017/04/13

Adult Learners, the NALC and Achieving the 60-Percent Attainment Goal

The EvoLLLution | Adult Learners, the NALC and Achieving the 60-Percent Attainment Goal
The structure of the higher education ecosystem, built to support 18- 22-year-olds who attend college full-time during fall and winter semesters only, limits access and success for the majority population of non-traditional and adult students who are critical to the United States achieving its 60-percent attainment goal.

Helping the Unites States achieve its 60-percent attainment target is a central priority of the Lumina Foundation. Goal2025 is a cornerstone of the foundation’s work, and on top of publishing the Stronger Nation reports, Lumina invests in and supports efforts of organizations big and small across the country aiming to improve postsecondary access and completion—especially for traditionally underserved populations. In this vein, Lumina Foundation threw its support behind the National Adult Learner Coalition (NALC)—an effort bringing together the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), the President’s Forum and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL)—which aims to advance the adult learner agenda in Washington DC and push for the expansion of postsecondary education and credentialing opportunities nationwide. In this interview, Amber Garrison Duncan and David Croom share their thoughts on the critical role adult learners play in achieving the 60-percent attainment target and reflect on the role the NALC can play in improving access and success among this demographic.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How do adults fit into the 60-percent attainment rate goal?

Amber Garrison Duncan (AGD)/David Croom (DC): Adults play a very large role in the ability of the US to reach a 60 percent attainment rate by 2025. Through the last two strategic plans, Lumina has supported several adult focused initiatives, including Credit When It’s Due, Win Win, Adult College Completion Network, Competency-Based Education Network, and CAEL.

These important projects helped to create new ways for postsecondary institutions to serve adults and helped shape the thinking in our new strategic plan released in October. In the 2017-2020 plan, Lumina created a road map to Goal 2025 that lays out in specific numbers where credentials will need to be awarded. If we are to reach 60 percent, then we need credentials to go to 16.4 million more individuals. Specifically, credentials will need to go to 6.1 million returning adults, or those with some college and no credential, and 5.5 million adults with no recognized postsecondary education. As you can see, it will be no small task to reach 11.6 million adults.

The current postsecondary system in this country was not built based on the needs of today’s students. If all of us keep doing what we are doing or making incremental changes, then these numbers will not be realized. What we need in the U.S. is a fundamental redesign of the postsecondary system that can serve learners who are overwhelmingly adults.

Evo: Broadly speaking, what are the most significant policy roadblocks standing in the way of adult enrollment in degree, certificate and certification programming?

AGD/DC: Adults face many barriers as they are trying to navigate a system that assumes students move from high school right to college. If each of us thinks about the various tasks we have to juggle in a day related to work, dependents, and managing a residence, then imagine adding an educational process that is inflexible and competes with important tasks for time, money and attention.

As we have learned with our partners over the last eight years, there are ways to support adult learners through the creation of new pathways and education providers, adult-friendly institutions, online learning, competency-based education, prior learning assessment, and completion colleges. However, these approaches can sometimes be hindered by state and federal policies that were never designed with these new innovations in mind.

Finding ways to do so will be key to seeing these innovations reach the 11.6 million adults who will need credentials to find good employment.

Evo: Why did the Lumina Foundation decide to support the National Adult Learner Coalition project, launched by the UCPEA, President’s Forum, OLC and CAEL?

AGD/DC: It is important for advocates of adult learners to consider how best to come together with a common voice and agenda to inform the federal policy agenda. Over the past year, UPCEA, President’s Forum, OLC and CAEL have worked to develop an approach to engagement on federal policy issues so that organizations involved in serving adult learners through continuing education and online education might have an opportunity to add their voices to the federal dialogue.

Evo: Over the long term, what do you hope to see the NALC accomplish?

AGD/DC: Students are no longer attending postsecondary education in the ways originally envisioned when the Higher Education Act was first written. They are attending at various time and intensity intervals, they have significant costs beyond college, and they are balancing multiple commitments such as their education, full-time work and parenting.

Over the long term, we hope that organizations like the National Adult Learner Coalition will drive awareness of the barriers that exists for adults to access and obtain a quality postsecondary education as well as provide federal policymakers resources to change our postsecondary system to be attuned to the needs of adult learners.

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Key Takeaways

  • The policies and terms laid out in the Higher Education Act no longer fit the reality of today’s students, and must evolve to create a postsecondary infrastructure that meets the needs of adult and non-traditional learners.
  • Creating pathways to postsecondary credentials for the 11.6 million adult learners without one is critical to helping the United States reach its 60 percent attainment goal by 2025.
  • The NALC will be critical in bringing to light the barriers, roadblocks and obstacles standing in the way of non-traditional student access and success, while providing federal policymakers critical resources to help inform the creation of a new higher education ecosystem.
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