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Reflecting Back: How Higher Education Has Changed Over 33 Years

The EvoLLLution | Reflecting Back: How Higher Education Has Changed Over 33 Years
Looking back on a career spanning over three decades, much has changed and the future looks bright for postsecondary educators serving non-traditional audiences.
The Learners

When I started in the field of adult higher education, our dominant student persona was (mostly) white women who had returned to school. Many of these learners had left higher education in the wake of marriage or other events that deferred their college or university experience. They were now in the working world and wanted the credentials they hadn’t completed. They were pretty confident learners.

Those learners are still with us today, but they form a smaller share of our enrollment. Today, young women go to college at a higher rate than men and complete college more often, so fewer of them show up in our classrooms as adult undergraduates.

Now, we have a much more diverse audience. In Loyola’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies (SCPS), students of color are now in a majority. When I look out at orientation, it’s very exciting to think about the vibrant future these learners represent.

Postsecondary Models

We’ve seen a number of changes during my tenure as Dean of the School of Professional and Continuing Studies that I regard as very positive:

  • Widespread adoption of the accelerated model
  • Deepening acceptance of prior learning assessment (PLA)
  • Acceptance and growth of online education
  • Increased number of niche masters programs

Accelerated Model

The accelerated model, using either eight-week or five- to six-week terms, has been more widely accepted in higher education. This model allows working adults to progress more rapidly and tends to focus courses on the most important outcomes. I would also argue that it produces superior outcomes. When I compared program outcomes for business students at two of the institutions where I’ve served, comparing 15- or 16-week terms with traditional students to accelerated models using eight-week terms with adult students, adult students out-performed traditional students on standardized exams from the College Board. This may well be due to the fact that adult students already understand many aspects of business before they enter, but we can conclude that adult students perform well with accelerated models.

Prior Learning Assessment (PLA)

I’ve been very heartened by the growth in the acceptance of prior learning assessment (PLA). I benefited from PLA in my undergraduate program at Antioch University, where I observed that PLA participants seemed to graduate more often at Simpson College. This observation led to my dissertation, where I found that those who took advantage of the portfolio form of PLA graduated at double the rate of those who did not. This finding was confirmed by the large study by CAEL (2010), which found that PLA participants dramatically increased their chances of persisting. We know of no other intervention that has this much impact on adult student persistence.

Online Education

We’ve had distance learning for a long time. Courses by mail were a feature of continuing education departments more than 100 years ago. We’ve had very good two-way video courses for a good part of my career. Online learning has long been questioned in continuing education: Is it effective? Do students persist? We know that online learning is at least as effective as face-to-face instruction, and there are indications that the most modern of these courses are more effective at helping students learn than face-to-face instruction. Evidence regarding the effect of online learning on persistence is more mixed, with some studies reporting higher persistence rates and some reporting lower. The tremendous growth of online learning and the shifting environment for its success is really spectacular. Modern online courses, with rich and simple synchronous meetings between instructors and students and mostly flipped classrooms, are really a sea change from the way these courses were conducted in the near past. It’s exciting to speculate on what the next steps will be that will make these courses more interactive and better adapted to the needs of students.

Niche Graduate Programming

In many of our universities, we’ve experimented with niche masters programs (instead of MBA, think Supply Chain), and this line of experimentation is very helpful to students as career needs go through cycles of construction and destruction. Nimbleness is not something higher education is known for, but this effort to build niche masters’ programs is a prime example of our new efforts.


The really big challenges that I think we face in adult higher education today are:

  • The weakening of public higher education
  • Challenging demographics resulting in the closures of small non-profits and the mergers of public institutions

This fall, a student studying business at University of Illinois Chicago taking 12 credits a semester will pay $725 per credit, including all fees. That same student at Loyola University Chicago will pay $684 per credit. When a well-respected private college costs less than a well-respected public college, something is wrong. For a number of years, funding for public higher education has been under siege. The continued stagnation and decline in public higher education funding is producing a crisis. This crisis is about affordability and access. At a time when the payoff for a four-year degree is expanding and demand for people with a college degree in the economy is growing, access is shrinking. Our state legislators face many challenges and it can be difficult to juggle all of them, but hostility to higher education funding is among the really dumb ideas that circulate in state capitals.

In Nathan Grawe’s book, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, the author makes the point that enrollment numbers in higher education will likely shrink in the years ahead. While we will need a larger share of the workforce to have at least some college education, the current demographic trend suggests that our colleges are going to get smaller. If we had a liberal immigration policy this would be less problematic, since colleges could fill the domestic enrollment gap with more international students. However, that equation is broken right now and the future for much of higher education looks grim. On one hand, the outlook for more elite institutions looks good as there is an increase in the number of families that have two well-educated wage earners (the formula for a preference for elite education). This is a function of an economy where the middle is being squeezed out, increasing the number of wealthier families and poorer ones. On the other hand, the outlook is darker for community colleges, regional publics, and small (non-elite) private colleges. There is a glimmer of hope in serving adult students, whose numbers will expand in the near term (Pearson, 2017), but projections show that these numbers will recede in the longer term. Small liberal arts schools are regularly closing, and this will continue. Mergers of public institutions will continue apace. The shake-out has started, and will continue for the foreseeable future.

The Rise and Fall of For-Profits

During my time in higher education, I’ve seen both the remarkable rise and the stunning fall of the for-profit institution. The dramatic rise of the for-profit was rooted in marketing (companies spending about 25 percent of revenue on marketing) and the use of online and accelerated models. Terrible outcomes from the for-profit sector have positioned them for failure. Transfer students who enroll at a for-profit largely do not graduate (Pearson, 2018). Those who are full-time graduate at a rate of 45 percent and only 6 percent transfer to another school. 31 percent of part-timers graduate, and only 11 percent transfer. Labor market outcomes are not attractive. A study by Cellini and Turner (2018) found that “students in public institutions have higher earnings and lower debt than their counterparts in for-profit institutions.” This combination of higher debt and lower earnings is part of the reason why the for-profit sector has taken such a beating.

The Future

Given all these factors, what do I foresee for the future? Artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics are bringing dramatic changes to the workforce, and I expect that this growth in technology will be the dominant issue in the days ahead. How we respond will determine our future. In a study from Frey and Osborne, “47 percent of total US employment is in the high-risk category” of significant impacts from the rise of AI and robotics. These effects will be hard hitting for the poorly educated (manufacturing, truck drivers and cab drivers) but will also affect jobs in finance and insurance (claims, appraisers, clerks, comp and benefits, secretaries). Jobs that are “generalist occupations requiring knowledge of human heuristics, and specialist occupations involving the development of novel ideas and artifacts, are the least susceptible to computerization.” Joseph Auon’s excellent book Robot Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence sketches out some good strategies for higher education to follow. Much remains to be seen in this field, and there is a lot of uncertainty. Some jobs could boom, and many will be affected. We are preparing students for careers that don’t yet exist, so some humility is required. It seems likely that most of our students will see their degrees as only one step in their professional development.

My Hopes

Education will grow more affordable, accessible and innovative, with more forms of adaptive learning and the continued acceptance of online education. We’ve got to tackle the challenge of affordability by more widely using PLA, implementing better transfer policies (Pearson, 2017) so that students don’t lose credits, improving the funds available in Pell and state grants, and controlling tuition.

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Aoun, J. 2017. Robot Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Cellini, S. & Turner, N. 2018. Gainfully Employed? Assessing the Employment and Earnings of For-Profit College Students Using Administrative Data. Retrieved from

Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. 2010. Fueling the Race to Postsecondary Success. Retrieved from

Frey, C & Osborne, M. 2017. The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation? Retrieved from

Grawe, N. 2017. Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Pearson, W. 2018. Making Sense of the New Transfer Student Persistence Metrics. Retrieved from

Pearson , W. 2017. We Need to Improve the Transfer Experience. Retrieved from

Pearson, W. 2017. More Adult Students Expected in Higher Education.  Retrieved from


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