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Coming Together to Effect Change for the Contemporary Student Demographic

The EvoLLLution | Coming Together to Effect Change for the Contemporary Student Demographic
Critical changes to the regulatory framework around higher education are needed to reshape the system to better serve adult learners, and through collaboration it’s possible to bring a wide range of expertise around contemporary students to bear in pushing for these changes.

The Presidents’ Forum, an extension of Excelsior College’s mission to serve adult learners at a distance, was founded in 2002 on the premise that there is tremendous benefit in collaborating with institutions and organizations with similar missions and goals. At a time when new and transformative technologies were revolutionizing access and opportunity for students, the Forum sought to bring together both for-profit and non-profit online purveyors of postsecondary learning to share knowledge of the most innovative and experienced programs.

When the Presidents’ Forum came together, the one unifying factor that all the initial members had in common was a desire to serve students, absent the boundaries of fixed time and geographic location, and produce student outcomes equivalent to or exceeding the high standard set for campus-based programs.

Over the course of its 15-year history, the Forum has been involved in significant projects drawing strength from collaboration with other important organizations such as the Western Interstate Council for Higher Education (WICHE) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), among others. Most notably, the Forum’s groundbreaking work on state reciprocity, now fully realized as the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA), is evidence of the power and promise of such collaborative efforts as nearly every state now participates in SARA. More recently, the Forum has provided a platform to facilitate the work of ten national organizations, known as the Collaborative for Quality in Alternative Learning (CQAL), to address the need for thought leadership and shared standards for quality assurance in an emergent sector of post-secondary education.

Likewise, the Forum’s recent participation in the National Adult Learning Coalition (NALC), through its initial grant period, has helped to channel its energy and resources in partnership with the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), and University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) toward mutually beneficial ends. While the adult student is the primary beneficiary of NALC’s current focus, policy issues identified by the group will enable institutions and organizations to better address the unique needs of today’s contemporary student.

Issues such as the expansion of access to Pell Grants, revision of Section 127 of the tax code, and removal of existing barriers to innovation in competency-based education and prior-learning assessment all speak to the critical need for our nation to better serve the emerging majority of contemporary students—those who must balance career, family and financial obligations that pull them away from education and arguably leave our nation with a less prepared and competitive workforce.  A collaborative enterprise like NALC adds credibility and impetus to effect positive change.

In addressing the needs of today’s adult learner, there is too much at stake for any one entity alone to tackle. Together, these organizations provide the necessary knowledge and resources to enhance access to post-secondary learning and accelerate attainment of credentials. However, the policy issues of concern to NALC are complex, and jointly sponsored actions must account for the needs and interests of the coalition’s multiple stakeholders.

Along with the obvious benefits of collaboration, it is this complexity that highlights the challenges collaboration can also bring. While the Presidents’ Forum institutions may share a common mission or vision, membership increasingly reflects the full spectrum of higher education providers, especially as technology transforms access to quality post-secondary education. Therefore, mutual agreement and alignment of support for change in areas of policy and regulation is not always straightforward, and collaborative initiatives must be approached with care to assure unity in serving all member’s interests while attaining desired outcomes.

The Presidents’ Forum, through its participation in NALC, will strengthen its mission to develop policy that addresses the needs of adult/contemporary learners and to inform those responsible for its implementation.