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Many Voices are More Impactful Than One: The National Adult Learner Coalition

The EvoLLLution | Many Voices are More Impactful Than One: The National Adult Learner Coalition
Affecting change, especially on the national level, is a tough ask in any space but in higher education this work is particularly challenging. However, by taking a collaborative approach, associations focused on the non-traditional student demographic are giving themselves the opportunity to be heard.

Though non-traditional students have morphed into the new majority students on college and university campuses across the United States, public and institutional policy has largely remained focused on the “traditional” 18-22-year-old demographic. Unfortunately, this has created an environment that leaves the majority of students underserved on their own campuses, but a group of associations focused on the non-traditional student population is working to change that. The University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) and the Presidents Forum, backed by a grant from the Lumina Foundation, have formed the National Adult Learner Coalition to affect state and national policy and to create a larger voice for non-traditional higher education. In this interview, Robert Hansen reflects on the aims of the National Adult Learner Coalition and shares his thoughts on taking a collaborative approach to this work.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What were some of the factors that led to the formation of the National Adult Learner Coalition?

Robert Hansen (RH): When I served as an associate provost for outreach at a public university, I was struck by how its government affairs agenda was entirely driven by major asks—grants from NSF and NIH, and, at that time, earmarks for physical plant priorities. The requests of our division were put “on the list,” but it was always understood that it was highly unlikely to make the final list. I understood the importance of other priorities, but I always found it odd that an institution with a student demographic so heavily skewed toward non-traditional learners would see adult learner initiatives as peripheral.

My former employer was not at all unique. In my role as CEO of UPCEA, I hear many of the same stories from deans and other senior leaders. The needs of the adult learners they serve are often seen as an afterthought, something to be acknowledged only after the “core” needs of first-time, full-time, residential students are met. But now that the non-traditional learner constitutes more than 80 percent of all higher education students, it is time to revisit a 20th-century hierarchy that no longer serves the purposes of our students, institutions or nation.

Not surprisingly, institutional priorities shape the policy agendas of higher education associations in Washington, D.C. The policy agendas of the Washington higher education establishment, known collectively as “One Dupont,” are impressive in their breadth and reach. And yet, I realized that what was missing is a clear, powerful and unified voice for adult learners and the professionals who serve them. This glaring absence was brought into sharper relief when awareness of the new majority of non-traditional learners heightened as the Obama Administration and prominent foundations such as the Lumina Foundation established degree attainment goals that could not be reached without profound interventions in the way our nation serves—and often fails to serve—adult and non-traditional learners.

It was becoming increasingly clear that somebody had to provide a voice in Washington for the adult learner. If it wasn’t UPCEA and other organizations dedicated to serving adult learners, then who?

Evo: Why was it so important to take a collaborative approach to this effort, rather than just going it alone?

RH: Over the years UPCEA’s efforts in policy had been largely episodic in nature. The presidential associations—ACE, APLU, and the like—have government affairs departments, as do many of the larger associations such as NACUBO and NAFSAA. With our limited resources, UPCEA was able to partner with key sponsors with lobbying practices in order to help inform membership about what is happening on the Hill. But mounting a sustainable government affairs agenda is prohibitively resource-intensive for an association of our size.

That’s when I reached out to my counterpart at the Online Learning Consortium, Kathleen Ives. Kathleen and I recognized that we were in the same boat. We wanted to do more in the policy arena to ensure that our memberships were well represented in changing the narrative around online education, but we couldn’t do it alone. So we decided to initiate a six-month pilot program. We pooled our resources, hired a firm to represent us, met with key education policy staffers on the Hill, and released a policy brief to various stakeholders.

It was a good start, but we realized that we needed a small number of other committed partners in the broader adult learner space in order to fully succeed, not only to share the burden of costs for a yearlong effort but also to leverage the complementary expertise—and memberships—of other organizations.

We reached out to Pam Tate of the Council for Adult & Experiential Learning, and to John Ebersole, who was the driving force behind the Presidents’ Forum, a group of adult-serving institutions, before his passing in 2016. Pam and John immediately saw the great potential in joining forces to create a new coalition dedicated to the needs of adult learners.

Then, just before we were about to move forward, we were fortunate to receive a generous planning grant from the Lumina Foundation. The grant has been enormously helpful in supporting the heavy lifting involved in building anything new.

Like all great partnerships, each organization brings something critical to the table. CAEL is the world’s leading organization for prior learning assessment, and is deeply engaged in other exciting initiatives that benefit adult learners. OLC is the world’s leading organization for online teaching and learning. As we all know, online is an especially popular—indeed, indispensable—modality for many time- and distance-challenged working adults. The President’s Forum consists of presidents of adult-serving institutions that are at the cutting edge of alternative paths for learning. And UPCEA is the association for leaders and administrators engaged in professional, continuing and online education.

Together, we cover the waterfront of adult learning and we are stronger for it.

Evo: Over the long term, what do you hope to see the coalition achieve?

RH: That National Adult Learner Coalition has established three overarching goals:

  1. Modernize federal education and workforce policy to reflect the reality that the adult learner is the new normal
  2. Educate stakeholders on the value and needs of adult learners and innovative ways to serve them
  3. Mobilize colleges and universities, employers, government and other key constituencies to advance the adult learner agenda

The first goal is every bit as ambitious as it sounds. In many ways the framework for higher education policy in the US is still largely based on a model of the university that is 50 years old, when the first Higher Education Act was passed in 1965. At that time the vast majority of students were traditional age. Today, just 15 percent of students are first-time, full-time, residential students, and yet the basic policy lens has not changed to accommodate that profound demographic shift. We realize that fundamentally overhauling the vision for higher education policy evokes the proverbial image of reversing the direction of an ocean liner in the Panama Canal. But it is important work, and our goal is to make progress. Our first white paper identifies a number of obstacles faced by adult learners, and proposes viable solutions.

The second and third goals are things that each of the founding members of the Coalition pursue as part of our work. To maximize impact, we recognized the need to be more intentional and coordinated in our efforts. It’s premature to outline the full range of our activities, but it is likely to include a web-based library of resources—data sources, research, etc.—related to the adult learner, a series of white papers, webinars, and conference sessions, and perhaps an annual or bi-annual benchmarking study related to adult learners, which would both raise awareness and promote best practices at the institutional level.

Evo: How will UPCEA members benefit from the association’s work with the National Adult Learner Coalition?

RH: There is another benefit that is perhaps even more critical for our members, and that is in the area of internal advocacy. As CEO, my overarching goal is to help position our members as leaders on their campuses. This goal is more imperative now than ever before, as the tectonic plates of higher education are not just shifting but colliding. As institutional decisions are made about how to move forward in a time of disruption, raising national awareness of the vital importance of serving adult learners elevates the work of our members. In other words, the external advocacy agenda of the National Adult Learner Coalition is designed, at least in part, to help our professional members make the internal case that they are best positioned to lead the university in the mission of serving the adult learner—whether through professional and continuing education, online programs, alternative credentialing or prior learning assessment.

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