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Are We Doing Enough to Serve Returning Adult Learners?

The EvoLLLution | Are We Doing Enough to Serve Returning Adult Learners?
Reimagining higher education processes, especially around prior-learning assessment and recognition, is critical for leaders if the nation is to hit its credential attainment goals while serving the needs of the majority of today’s students.

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn” – Alvin Toffler

For decades higher education—especially at the university level—has been based predominantly on the needs, perceived and real, of students entering directly from high school intent on gaining a degree before having to think seriously of a career, support a family of their own, and/or work full time. While the needs of adult students have conventionally been “addressed” through evening and weekend classes, these offerings have largely been differentiated from traditional higher education.

Today’s demographics and workforce needs demand that we rapidly re-envision the focus, and broaden the reach of higher education not just through community colleges, regional universities, and “for-profit” institutions but through our national universities—including our research and flagship institutions—recognizing that we can no longer consider the needs of this segment of the population as being met on the margins.

A recent report from the Lumina Foundation highlights the realities of changing demographics and student trends:

  • 38 percent of our undergraduates are older than 25
  • 58 percent of students balance responsibilities of work with their studies
  • 26 percent of students are enrolled while raising children.

What’s more, results of a recent CLASP report that suggests we will fall at least 3 million degrees and 4.7 million credentials short of the 22 million additional new college graduates needed by 2018 to meet workforce demands if current trends continue.

These two aspects—a growing population of adult enrollees, many of whom desire to gain degrees after being in the workforce, and the looming shortage of a pool to meet the needs for increasingly specialized intellectual capital—raise two critical questions:

  1. Are we doing enough to meet the needs of the growing adult population hitherto considered as “non-traditional”?
  2. Should we be re-envisioning our structures and mindset to ensure their, and our, success?

Rather that attempt to comprehensively address these questions (for which the answers should respectively be “No” and “Yes”) a few key points are raised for purposes of furthering discussion and hopefully accelerating action in this area.

Beyond re-envisioning who we serve, we need to ensure that we remove the differentiation between traditional and non-traditional students insofar as the design and structure of our degrees and course offerings while simultaneously reframing services and expectations.

A few key areas for consideration include:

  1. Assessment of past experience as a substitute for prior grades and pre-requisites;
  2. Unbundling of coursework to enable faster progression;
  3. Re-envisioning the credit hour to ensure assessment of mastery of subject matter rather than seat time;
  4. Developing mechanisms of course delivery that meet work schedules and realities of competing real-world responsibilities;
  5. Developing support services that meet the needs of an experienced, yet at times academically insecure, adult population.

As one might imagine, addressing these will also result in greater successes with the traditional population at most institutions.

It is crucial that we recognize that adult-learners, and especially those returning to gain a degree after experience in the workforce, have different needs and expectations from an 18-year-old. Their time is valuable; they come with tremendous real-world experience that is equivalent to, and often exceeds, introductory coursework. In addition their expectations regarding the value proposition of time spent in gaining knowledge are justifiably high. Unlike the 18-year-old in awe of an older instructor, these students are not satisfied by titles and qualifications but come expecting the development of skills and talent, and the acquisition of knowledge, that will help them break through the glass barrier created by their lack of degree or accelerate their professional advancement by use of new knowledge. Many of our returning students have completed some level of coursework in years gone by and we need to acknowledge that for a majority of them the grades earned five or more years ago do not adequately reflect their level of intellectual skill, understanding and motivation. A “C” earned five, seven (or in many cases more) years ago should not be automatically a metric of rejection for a course. Rather, subsequent work experience and performance need to be assessed, and accounted for, in developing a plan for degree completion.

Just as we, as faculty and administrators, would be insulted if we were asked to spend months reading background material that we considered to be duplicative of our existing knowledge before we were allowed to gain new information, we need to recognize that these students have often gained significant knowledge that is relevant to our courses through their work experience and provide mechanisms to assess and give credit for this. The unbundling of degrees through modularization of courses along with mechanisms for assessment of prior knowledge is an aspect that needs to be implemented across the board so that students can rapidly move up to the requisite level rather than waste time repeating preliminary and introductory material. While crucial for returning adults, such mechanisms would also assist in personalizing the educational experience for all students.

Decades ago, Andrew Carnegie developed the concept of a credit hour as a means of determining participation in a pension program. Unfortunately this has taken on a life of its own and more often than not, seat time is used as an indicator of assessment rather than knowledge gained. We need to recognize that all students, not just adult learners, acquire information and develop an understanding of topics at different rates, and implement mechanisms that enable progression based on completion of competencies associated with sets or “packages” of knowledge.

We appear to agree that the Executive MBA (EMBA) and fully employed MBA (FEMBA) format works well for a specific set of adults willing to pay a higher price for a degree. Yet we often fail to recognize that the same, or a slightly modified, format could well be applied successfully to those who have experience and the motivation to succeed but not the means to pay the same amount as corporate executives. Surely success does not depend on the willingness to pay multiples of tuition. Online delivery of knowledge/instruction enables this segment of the population to continue their education while meeting the full extent of other responsibilities, choosing appropriate times of study that maximize opportunity. The desire to gain a degree and the necessity of meeting family obligations do not have to be in conflict! The ability to take courses that start multiple times a year, and can be completed over varied periods of time to match schedules and individual ability, such as afforded by the University of Texas at Arlington, further enables flexibility and opportunity.

Individuals who have substantial work experience expect efficiency, customer service and convenience—all aspects that are perhaps not at the uppermost of the general academic lexicon. Ensuring that response times in areas ranging from admissions and financial aid to registration and degree completion checks are short and that students do not have to run from pillar to post to get questions answered are essential if we are to meet the justifiable expectations of adult returning students. Presenting alternatives and flexibility as well as being able to understand individual circumstances driven by work or family responsibilities are also essential, as is the need to ensure that adequate and appropriate support services are offered in areas ranging from academic to counseling and health services. Advances in technology have made it possible for us to augment traditional forms of interaction and access through digital means and it is critical that we use these, perhaps adopting practices already implemented in the corporate world to afford opportunities that are not constrained by time or location.

While the 18-year-old and the adult returning student have different motivations for pursuing a degree at an institution of higher education both are critical populations for the future. The characteristics of the college-going population have shifted and universities need to catch up or become obsolete. While there is a need to significantly change the way we operate in order to meet the needs, and ensure the success, of the growing adult returning population it should also be clear that the additions and changes will positively impact all students irrespective of age or background. In fact one could argue that attention to these aspects has been long overdue and that public institutions of higher education need to accelerate change if they are to remain relevant in the 21st century.

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