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Shifting the Focus of Postsecondary Policy for the Sake of the Knowledge Economy

The EvoLLLution | Shifting the Focus of Postsecondary Policy for the Sake of the Knowledge Economy
The knowledge economy relies on having a well educated workforce committed to lifelong learning, but the higher education ecosystem was—and still is—designed around the needs of traditional-age students. This needs to change for the sake of the majority demographic of students, and the heath of the economy.

For the past 20 years, the American economy has been in a state of transition towards the knowledge economy—a truth that was made immensely apparent during the recent recession. Today’s working professionals, regardless of industry, must be committed to their ongoing education and development in order to keep pace with changes in their field. However, the higher education ecosystem remains centered around the needs of traditional-age, full-time degree students, a population in decline. While some individual institutions, alongside non-traditional and continuing education divisions, are creating pathways for adult audiences, the policy environment remains unchanged, which establishes roadblocks to being able to effectively serve this audience. In this interview, Pamela Tate shares her thoughts on how the National Adult Learner Coalition can change this reality and shift federal policy to better support the growing population of adult learners.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why did CAEL decide to become involved with the National Adult Learner Coalition?

Pamela Tate (PT): CAEL has been involved with public policy for over twenty years, focusing on a range of issues that affect adult learners: financial aid, tax benefits from employer educational assistance, innovative financing strategies, One-Stop Career Centers, support for student veterans, and the promotion of new workforce development and postsecondary strategies like career pathways, prior-learning assessment, and competency-based education. We’ve worked with individual states on policy issues and also at the federal level. In this work, we have always seen ourselves as being a voice of the adult learner, and we have recognized that this voice is not always present, let alone heard, in many higher education policy circles.

As a non-profit located outside of the DC area, we have made an impact on the federal policy dialogue but we would like to have a bigger presence in federal policy discussions that affect the adult learner.

To be sure, there are many great DC organizations that advocate for many of the policies we support, and we do our best to collaborate with them when we can. Yet, still, we have wished to have a stronger voice for the adult learner, and we see this new coalition as a way to expand our capacity to educate policy makers about the issues and policies we care about. All of the organizations in the Coalition recognize that we can leverage our collective strength to make sure that voice is heard.

Evo: What are some of the aims of the coalition that are particularly close to the mission of CAEL, and how will you and your colleagues work to achieve them?

PT: CAEL’s goal is for there to be meaningful learning, credentials and work for every adult. One of the overarching aims of the coalition is to educate stakeholders on the needs of the adult learner—and another is to influence changes in public policy to reflect the reality that the adult learner is the new normal. Those two aims are very closely aligned with CAEL’s mission and vision for the future.

Our partners in this coalition all recognize that true change won’t be possible until and unless the nation’s leaders have the adult learner and the demands of the Knowledge Economy on their radar. We think that our focus on educating stakeholders is really key in establishing the right kind of policy environment—one where a reimagined Higher Education Act can support 21st-century program models based on learning, rather than the credit hour, and an approach to workforce development that involves long-term career pathways rather than just short-term job training.

Evo: What are some of the roadblocks you and your partners in the coalition see standing in the way of your work?

PT: The biggest roadblock we may face is the uncertainty in DC right now. On issues of funding, there are real concerns about entire programs being defunded—yet, it’s unclear what exactly will happen with the federal budget. On issues of leadership, there are still many positions within the Departments of Education and Labor that have yet to be filled. Potential policy opportunities for supporting the adult learner may depend a great deal on the kind of individuals who ultimately fill these positions. As these uncertainties dissipate, we will have a better sense of how we might proceed to advance potential policy change opportunities.

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

PT: Each of the partner organizations is relatively small, and so we see collaboration as a way to expand our capacity, as well as our thinking about policy changes needed for the adult learner. By branding ourselves as a policy coalition with an explicit focus on the adult learner, we can convey a stronger message than we would through our individual efforts to educate and advocate for change.

Evo: Ultimately, how will CAEL benefit from its participation in this coalition?

PT: The main benefit we want to see is for the adult learner. We want this coalition to raise the profile of the adult learner so that higher education policy is no longer designed around the traditional-age student. We want to see greater tax benefits and incentives for employers who invest more in education and training, whether through general educational assistance or through specialized apprenticeships and other employer-educational partnerships. And we want to see an overall understanding within policy circles that lifelong learning is now a requirement in our Knowledge Economy, so that workforce and higher education policies reflect that new reality. This is the way that the country can become stronger economically for both industry and the individual.

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