Published on 2018/02/14
The EvoLLLution | Shared Benefits of Adult Postsecondary Access
By building a deeper understanding of how post-traditional students make educational choices, policymakers and institutional leaders can drive change to ensure the higher education environment is better suited to their needs.
This year, the American Council on Education (ACE) released The Post-Traditional Learners Manifesto Revisited. The report explores advancement opportunities for the millions of Americans seeking to upgrade their human capital through higher education, while remaining active and contributing players in today’s job market.

In this interview Louis Soares offers key recommendations to postsecondary institutions and policymakers on how best to integrate this new category of learners into the existing higher education landscape, and outlines the broad benefits of improving access to postsecondary education for post-traditional learners.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is adult postsecondary access and success a subject that’s close to your heart?

Louis Soares (LS): For me, the question of access to postsecondary education for non-traditional students is a personal one. My parents are both immigrants to the US, and while neither of them gained any formal education beyond the 7th grade, they raised my sisters and me to be very education-conscious. When I was growing up, I watched my dad take on a series of factory jobs, which he lost whenever the factory in question relocated. Without a formal education, he had no way of upping his human capital, and was effectively shut out of any postsecondary programs that might have helped him find and keep a better job.

That personal connection is what inspired me to teach literacy to migrants, but once I started helping adults re-connect to the postsecondary system so they could optimize their lives, I realized it was what I was meant to do.

Evo: What are the biggest changes that need to be made, both by postsecondary institutions and by policymakers, to serve the needs of post-traditional learners?

LS: In our study, we quantified our definition of post-traditional learners by studying data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey (NPSAS). The question guiding our research was whether the image of a postsecondary student—that is, a person between the ages of 18 and 22, with no real responsibilities beyond education—still holds weight in today’s academic market and, if not, what the new, post-traditional, student looks like.

Our findings showed that nearly 60 percent of undergraduate students today fit the “post-traditional” definition, meaning that they are generally older, with work and family commitments that rank as high as, if not higher than, their educational responsibilities.

We also ask whether the current US postsecondary system reflects that 60 percent of the student body—and if not, what changes have to happen to ensure that these students can be better accounted for in the postsecondary landscape.

By building a deeper understanding of how students make educational choices in the light of these equally weighted responsibilities, we can drive future policy changes in the postsecondary field and adapt learning modules, both in the classroom and in the workplace, to better fit their needs.

Evo: What are the biggest roadblocks standing in the way of those changes becoming reality?

LS: We still have 40 percent of students that fit a more traditional description, meaning that they are able to prioritize learning through a two- or four-year degree program. They need to receive services as well, but it does set up a tension that policymakers have to juggle.

We are still building our understanding of post-traditional students, and learning how best to communicate their needs to stakeholders on the federal, state and local levels. Through our study, we’ve seen a variety of innovative practices that colleges and universities have adopted to serve post-traditional learners but we need to be careful not to view those individual solutions as universal panaceas. We have to ask whether those local solutions can and should be scaled up, and whether they provide a broad enough understanding of post-traditional needs to affect policy decisions on a national level. Once we’ve developed a set of practices that makes sense for a variety of stakeholders, we can turn towards exploring whether broader policy changes are necessary.

Evo: From the perspective of institutional administrators, how does it benefit colleges and universities to focus on serving the needs of post-traditional learners rather than the learners that institutions are traditionally geared towards?

LS: Our data shows that nearly 48 percent of students have dependents, and more than a quarter of post-traditional learners are single parents. What’s more, 60 percent of post-traditional learners are women. Given that information, you begin to see a profile of what the typical post-traditional student looks like. If you’re an institution looking to attract new students, that profile raises two questions.

The first is, if you have a woman who has dependents like children or elderly parents, how would you craft a hybrid structure that would enable her to succeed in your programs? How would you balance availability for online and face-to-face learning? How would you make advisory services available to that student, and how robust would those advisory services have to be?

The second question leads out of the first: How would you resource your institution so that those services are accessible? How would you reallocate your budget to allow for the increased technological and advisory needs that a post-traditional student might have? How do you budget for a smaller faculty that can cater to students who might require more one-on-one learning? From a business standpoint, answering these questions will give universities a better sense of their consumers, which will empower them to allocate resources in ways that make business and academic sense.

Evo: Are there commonalities between what a post-traditional student would need in order to be successful and what could help a traditional 18- to 22-year-old student succeed in their endeavours?

LS: Yes, there are a number of similarities in changes that could benefit both traditional and post-traditional learners. In one of our previous papers, we talked about the intersection between millennial traditional students and post-traditional learners and found that the two groups connect on several levels.

First, both groups have an interest in hybrid learning models—that is, having the ability to learn online as well as face-to-face. That’s attributed to the fact that millennials have grown up with digital technologies, and so even if they are traditional full-time students they’re often more comfortable learning online. In contrast, post-traditional learners appreciate the time flexibility that digital learning affords, so while the motivations of these two groups may differ, they agree on the benefits of having online learning accessible at a postsecondary level.

Second, both traditional and post-traditional students share a common interest in upgrading academic learning with practical skills. We see this in the recent proliferation of online academies, where people enrol in short-term programs to learn skills such as computer coding. When you look at who’s attending these programs, it’s a mix of traditional students and people who are looking to change or upgrade their job skills, who would be considered very much post-traditional. The marketplace requires the same skills of both groups of learners and so there’s a commonality in their desire for this fast-paced blending of academic and practical know-how.

Evo: For policy makers, how does it benefit communities and regional economies for colleges and universities to be better serving post-traditional learners?

LS: 36 million people in the US workforce have some college credits but no degree. These people have diverse skill sets and are already contributing to the economy, but colleges and universities can help them reach the next level of their professional development. There’s clear regional economic evidence that doing so leads to increased productivity and GDP within the markets where this sort of academic upgrading occurs.

Evo: How do you expect to see non-credit credentials like certificates increase in value in the labour market, particularly when they are part of stackable programs?

LS: This is an area of exciting innovation, some of which is happening within the colleges and universities that serve post-traditional learners because they’re looking for new ways to offer learners incremental skills and stackable credentials.

There’s also a lot of excitement from non-traditional education providers, meaning bootcamps and online academies, who are offering industry credentials on a smaller, often more accessible scale, for post-traditional students.

The key in growing value with these industry credentials is going to lie in understanding the validity of those credentials, and whether they align with actual competencies and skills. We have to have some sense that learners have achieved a certain level of competency through these courses, and we need to be able to assess those abilities in real time.

The corporate side is already working on this through “people analytics,” where corporations assess a worker’s performance on the job and link that performance to the credentials the worker had going into the position. If that can inform the curriculum and credential development of non-traditional education providers, that’s really exciting.

Evo: To that point, once those aspects of stackable credentials are worked out, do you see that model of learning overtaking traditional degree pathways?

LS: I don’t think so. There’s a lot of complexity in traditional postsecondary pathways that we can simplify to enhance student completion, but there’s a lot of richness that comes out of a traditional postsecondary experience as well, and we wouldn’t want to lose that structure. The trick lies in combining existing pathways with new ones, and if things evolve as I suspect they will, we’re going to start understanding how to build out different increments of the more traditional model, and to discover what works best to get learners to certain competencies without having to undertake a full degree. Those elements can then be aligned with more innovative solutions. So, I think it’s more of a remixing than an overtaking.

Like any other industry, postsecondary education has to find new ways to respond to disruption. It needs to find new models that make sense for new markets.

We’re in the midst of that process now. Many higher-ed institutions are trying to figure out how to serve new markets while not losing sight of their existing ones, and while they’re doing good work in this regard, their solutions are individual, and driven by leadership teams that are committed to change. By contrast, the higher education system as a whole has so many moving parts, and the solution for one institution might not work for another. We’re working through the process of understanding how and when single-university solutions should lead to scaled change in the industry as a whole in ways that make academic and financial sense.

Evo: What are the first steps that need to be taken to create this diverse postsecondary environment that’s better suited to the post-traditional demographic?

LS: There are three audiences that need to take different steps to create this reality.

First, post-traditional learners have to take agency in creating this market. To be a post-traditional learner you have to be your own best advocate, and be very clear on what sort of skills you need to develop the human capital that will sustain you throughout your career. There’s a certain consciousness to recognizing that everything you do in your life – in the workplace, in the community, in formal educational environments – has merit in terms of building that capital, and you need to draw those skills together to become the most attractive job candidate possible. Post-traditional need to be really self-aware of where their human capital is, and where it needs to go.

Second, public policymakers have to acknowledge that while they’ve structured most of their policy to work for traditional students, the demographics have shifted – and policy should shift, too. Post-traditional students number in the millions and ought to be the appropriate lens through which to frame and discuss how to use society’s money.

For administrators, the first step will be to look at how this post-traditional demand for higher education will affect academic and financial considerations for institutions moving forward. Post-traditional demand is episodic: these students access education over long periods of time, rather than in two- or four- year chunks, and administrators have to take that in mind when they are considering how to structure their offerings moving forward. That said, a blanket solution isn’t going to work for all universities, and administrators need to consider which segments of the academic market they plan to cater to moving forward. It might include some, but not all, segments of post-traditional learners.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Key Takeaways

  • As they develop local solutions for accommodating post-traditional students, colleges and universities have an opportunity to help frame approaches to post-traditional learning on a broader level.
  • The demographics speak for themselves: Moving forward, policymakers must consider the needs of post-traditional learners when developing education policy.
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