Published on 2018/04/04

Post-Traditional Perspectives: Understanding the Needs of Adult Learners

The EvoLLLution | Post-Traditional Perspectives: Understanding the Needs of Adult Learners
As adults become an increasingly visible population of students, it’s important for colleges and universities to understand their views on the value of higher education, and design programming to fit their needs.

In January 2018, Champlain College Online released Adult Viewpoints 2017: Online Learning & the Back To School Decision, a survey that reveals significant new findings on how US adults between the ages of 23 to 55 perceive the value of higher education, the barriers and motivators for them to return to school, and the quality of online learning. In this interview, Dr. Laurie Quinn shares her insights into the survey’s findings and her views on the opportunities and challenges facing online higher education more broadly.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important to Champlain College Online to stay in the loop on understanding adult learners’ viewpoints and perspectives?

Laurie Quinn (LQ): The short and simple answer is that adult and post-traditional learners are our students, and to better understand their needs and wants from us as an educational institution, we need to ask them directly.

Further, adult and post-traditional learners aren’t just an increasingly important subset of Champlain College’s student population; they’re becoming an increasingly visible group of prospective students across the country. We’re excited to share what we’ve learned because the information is relevant for any institution wanting to know what today’s college student needs and looks like.

Evo: What was the most surprising outcome in your findings?

LQ: For me, the most surprising and concerning outcome we found was the gap in understanding about the return on investment in higher education. This isn’t because I’m not aware of public skepticism about higher education’s value to broader society—those conversations have been with us for a while. It’s because the return on investment is a proven thing. When I think about the enormous life benefits that accrue to adults who pursue higher education—benefits that are demonstrated to be multigenerational—I’m particularly focused on helping adults understand that the return on investment of time and money is worth the effort.

Evo: What can colleges and universities do to ensure that adults see returns on their financial and time investments in higher education?

LQ: The fundamental thing that drives many of us into higher education is that, whether we have faculty credentials or not, we think of ourselves as teachers. In our efforts to make educational access as visible as possible, we may have missed a step in remembering that another major part of our job is to teach people about why that education is important once they leave the classroom. In other words, we have to clarify what it means for individuals and their families to invest the time and tuition to better their educational standing in the job market. We as colleges and universities have a good deal of work ahead of us in this regard, and at Champlain we’re committed to helping our prospective students understand what it means for their futures, regardless of when they start their journey back into higher education. The case is clear that for the vast majority of adult learners, that investment will be worth it, and we need to make that more evident for the 35 percent of adults who are skeptical about it in our survey.

Evo: When it comes to this question of return on investment, where does non-credit continuing education, stackable programming, and microcredentialing fit?

LQ: It’s a critical piece of the puzzle, but it’s not the whole picture. Even though we know it can be highly motivating for students to think about stackability as a means to degree completion, we shouldn’t shy away from the honest conversation that some kinds of learning require more time, and that the process of deep applied learning, which is very much a signature of how we approach learning at Champlain, takes more than a one-shot.

What we find is that the certificate model, in which a student can stack credentials into an associate or bachelor’s degree, is a wonderful opening conversation with a prospective student, but we’re committed to continuing that conversation, so that the student doesn’t come away with the idea that they’ve made the most of their educational efforts by coming out with a single credential. Sometimes it’s true that that single credential is of benefit, but we need to put the emphasis on how that credential can be stacked into a broader degree. How can we get students to be ambitious about reaching their goals, credential by credential and stack by stack?

Evo: In the study, you found that the two biggest obstacles to re-enrolling were prior student loan debt and affordability. What can colleges and universities do to reduce these pressures on prospective adult learners?

LQ: One critical piece in accomplishing this is getting serious about accepting transfer credits, previous learning, and credentials that are appropriately evaluated within the context of the degree program and its learning outcomes. This can be make-or-break in a student’s decision to pursue continuing education. Adult learners want to know how much it will cost, but the question very much on the heels of that is how much time it will take.

Evo: What are the biggest challenges that an institution can face in recognizing and accepting access through prior learning?

LQ: This is a convergence of two factors. The first is policy. Policy decisions come to life very quickly when you’re sitting across from a prospective student for whom the decision to invest in education can be a big one. We need to be better at humanizing our policies to be adult learner-friendly.

The second is helping faculty members, whether full time or adjunct, think about their work in the context of online and continuing education. How do their responsibilities to online learners differ from their responsibilities to traditional learners? In essence, what is the faculty member’s job?

When online education was in its infancy, faculty’s main concern was to create engaging course content and ensure that their presence was visible everywhere in the learning process so that distance and online learners didn’t feel isolated. At Champlain College, we’ve excelled in that.

Now, I’m interested in expanding on those original questions. How else can faculty members help students fill out the remaining competencies that they need in order to be baccalaureate-educated? We need to deploy our faculty talents and expertise effectively in this regard.

Evo: How do you draw the line between a proactive, accessibility-focused prior-learning policy and a broad shift towards competency-based education?

LQ: In my experience, it’s extremely important when speaking to prospective adult students to begin from a place of acknowledging strength and previously acquired skills. When you say to an adult who’s thinking about going back to school, “We believe that you already know important things about this field, you’ve been working in this field, you’ve been reading and studying independently in your own career,” you’re acknowledging that the prospective student already has skills and abilities we can help enhance. We’re not trying to teach them something they already know.

In the best-case scenario, these skills come from experience that the student can actively demonstrate and earn credit for, but often they come also from exposure to shorter term programs, well-designed training, on-the-job experience, and sometimes even from mentoring others. These learners have deep applied experience, and they just need to demonstrate it to us to show they have the equivalency to the formal credential.

There’s real opportunity for us in this space, and adult-focused online institutions in particular have made some important progress here. I don’t think it’s as well understood across the whole patchwork of higher education institutions.

Evo: As you mentioned earlier, it’s not just niche institutions that are looking at adults as a critical demographic—it’s a growing phenomenon across the industry. As you reflect on some of the data that was unearthed in the survey, what do you think should be the most important takeaway for other postsecondary administrators?

LQ: If you’re a person who entered higher education because you’re inspired by the transformation that a college experience gives, the age of the students you serve should matter a whole lot less than it does in the way our institutions are structured. Transformation is transformation, and we have to figure out how to open access to such opportunities to all ages.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about what you’ve learned from the survey results and the impact you hope the outcome will have?

LQ: Champlain Online has a deep commitment to accessible education, and it’s part of why we’ve set the growth goals that sparked this survey in the first place. Yes, growth is a part of our business model, but more importantly it’s about enabling access for more students.

There’s another half to that question, and the way that I would frame it is: access to what? We can open the door, but if we haven’t been thoughtful about what’s on the other side, we can’t ensure that students will receive that transformative quality that a good education brings. We celebrate graduations because we know that students leaving Champlain are extraordinarily well prepared by their education for the future. Are we holding ourselves accountable for those quality measures and making sure that the transformation that we’re offering is a lasting one? We need to be sure that the education students receive online is about more than the letters they’ve earned after their name. It needs to be about opportunity and transformative growth.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Key Takeaways

  • Colleges and universities need to clarify misconceptions around the value an education holds outside the classroom. It’s not just about the student. An education translates into better opportunities for the family as a whole.
  • Two major obstacles—prior student loan debt and affordability—stand in the way of adult learners accessing higher education, but they can be avoided by recognizing transfer credits, out-of-classroom learning and previous credentials.
  • A good education takes time, and while stackable credentials provide an incentive to support adult learner persistence, deep applied learning is necessary to helping them reach personal and professional goals.