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System Perspectives on Serving Adult Learners in the Wake of the Pandemic

The EvoLLLution | System Perspectives on Serving Adult Learners in the Wake of the Pandemic
As the advent of the pandemic highlighted the growing population of adult learners in higher education, schools that had not previously served non-traditional students need to re-orient themselves around creating diverse learning experiences for the diverse learners they serve.

CAEL is fortunate to have a diverse membership. Members range from individual contributors to entire organizations and even statewide postsecondary systems. Together, they complete the CAEL community. Since COVID-19 has had such a broad impact, I thought it would be valuable to get a system-level postsecondary perspective on some high-level topics during the pandemic-era “new normal.” Eric Fotheringham, Ph.D. and Staci Grasky, Ed.D., agreed to participate. Eric is director of strategic academic initiatives at the University of North Carolina System (UNCS), and Staci is executive director of academic program development for the Maine Community College System (MCCS). MCCS is Maine’s two-year college system. Serving over 17,000 students and offering nearly 300 programs, it encourages lifelong learning and emphasizes technical, career and transfer opportunities. UNCS encompasses North Carolina’s four-year public institutions, including 16 universities and the NC School of Science and Mathematics, the country’s first public residential high school for gifted students. The system enrolls nearly 250,000 students.

I asked Eric and Staci the same set of questions, and they offered diverse perspectives. A few takeaways stood out to me. The COVID-19 crisis, while not changing overarching goals, requires making adjustments to the paths we take to get there. Varied histories and diverse student populations have placed individual institutions at different points in the ever-evolving effort to serve adult learners. Building bridges to reengage with the considerable number of people with some college experience but no degree is a priority. And, probably most important: adult learners have an outsized role in the success of not just postsecondary systems but the communities they serve throughout their states.

Jeannie McCarron (JM): From a system perspective, how have your goals/priorities changed since the advent of COVID-19?

Staci Grasky (SG): We took the opportunity to ask ourselves what COVID-19 is now allowing (sometimes even forcing) us to accomplish. While many goals remained consistent, many were prioritized. For instance, all of our colleges are in the process of moving to a new online learning platform (LMS). This accelerated implementation for some of them and has precipitated the use of the LMS to support all courses in the future (even those conducted face to face). Another example is that as a system, we developed an online orientation for new students within the LMS. Each college is using course shell to customize their own online orientations for incoming students.

Moving forward, we’re looking at how we proceed to deliver education effectively and maintain the safety of students, staff and faculty, considering the spectrum of possible options for the fall. Down the road, it will also be interesting to see what “sticks” in terms of new delivery modalities, standard operating procedures, learning environment, etc.

Eric Fotheringham (EF): The goals/priorities have largely remained the same: provide the highest quality education at the lowest cost while expanding access and student success. How that is accomplished changes dramatically when social distancing is necessary and a global pandemic shifts the foundation of lives and institutions so quickly, but the core function of our work is the same. In some ways, it has called into clear relief two general approaches to higher education: some students are looking for a high-quality education that is intrinsically linked with a “coming-of-age” college experience while others are looking for workforce-ready, stackable credentials that prioritize skills development, completing the educational path they were on, or incorporating knowledge earned outside the college or university to facilitate completion. Both types of students are fully supported at our institutions, but it is important to understand that their desired educational outcomes and processes by which to attain those goals are not necessarily the same. One additional way that our goals and priorities have changed recently is with a renewed focus on improving the articulation of transfer credits. It is commonly accepted that a large percentage of transfer students lose some credits when transferring between institutions; if the pandemic causes the seismic shift in higher education that is expected, we need to reduce the loss of credits to help students continue progressing toward graduation with limited loss of time.

JM: What are your colleges and universities asking from you these days?

SG: For the most part, our colleges are looking for continued connection and the assurance that we remain steadfast in our mission. They also seek additional training and professional development around best practices in teaching and learning, given current constraints, the new LMS and other tools, such as video capture and online test proctoring, to name a couple.

EF: More than anything else, our universities are asking for representative leadership with elected officials, coordination throughout the state to provide a unified front, systemwide support for important initiatives, and compassionate understanding throughout unprecedented circumstances.

JM: Why did you join CAEL as a system member?

SG: The economic need for Maine’s workforce to continue to grow, both in size and skill, to meet emerging demands is paramount. There’s a statewide initiative for 60 percent of Mainers to have a credential of value by the year 2025, just to try and keep up with projected need. Key to reaching that goal is engaging with adults who are un- or under-employed and getting them the training and education they need to find employment, take on new roles where they currently work, or pull themselves out of work situations that don’t allow for growth and/or don’t pay a living wage. At the same time, we look at our systems with regard to how the adult student experiences them, and we realize that we often cater to a more traditional-aged student body. We recognize that additional attention needs to be paid to older students completing the credentials that will move them forward in their careers. CAEL seemed a logical partner in helping us assess where we are and how we need to change, and they provide us with proven strategies to make those changes. Joining with CAEL at the system level was both cost-effective and emphasizes that this is a statewide priority.

EF: CAEL has been supportive of the work at many North Carolina institutions, bringing important insights into our daily operations, particularly around adult learners. Instead of working with CAEL on numerous one-time projects, we wanted to establish a long-term partnership that wasn’t reliant on individual contracts. We have always valued CAEL’s leadership, knowledge and services. Signing up as a system allows us to participate as one comprehensive unit, sharing the benefits across institutions collectively rather than individually.

JM: Based on your current system membership with CAEL, your system is clearly focused on the adult learner. Is this focus widely accepted within your system? Explain.

SG: The adult population is critical to meeting statewide workforce needs, and in practice, we see some gaps in how non-traditional students experience our colleges, from recruitment and enrollment, to course scheduling and delivery. In many ways, following the protocols that have long existed for traditional-aged students is simple–the methods are tried and true and work for most in that demographic. When we changed from technical colleges to community colleges, the average age of our students dropped. This necessitated a shift to accommodate the traditional population for a while, and it can be difficult to know when to adjust focus again, but that time has clearly come.

EF: Yes—in different ways. “Widely accepted” is not necessarily the same thing as “implemented statewide.” Many of our institutions are making tremendous strides with this population, while others are beginning to explore this growing student demographic. The 16 public universities in North Carolina are not monolithic in their student demographics, so those at the forefront of adult learner services are those who have served adult learners for a long time. Our partners in the community college system experience much of the same variation across their 58 colleges. Together we look to implement programs that benefit all students statewide, but more attention is being paid to adult learners now, thanks in part to our recently adopted statewide educational attainment goal. The institutions that are just starting to address this student population have not needed to do so until very recently. Fortunately, our more experienced institutions are providing support to those at the beginning of their journey.

JM: What are some of your adult learner initiatives in the short and longer term?

SG: I mentioned our system-level, online orientation shell. We are working on a track specific to adult learners, so they get credit for their experiences and get connected to resources particular to them. We currently have some short-term trainings happening in key industry areas (healthcare, computing, welding) that are at no cost to participants, thanks to a grant aimed at adult learners. Those who complete them receive partial scholarships to continue the credit program associated with their training. We are engaged, through another grant, in a research project that is reaching out in a variety of ways to adult Mainers with some credit, but no degree, to get their impressions of higher education and what barriers to continuing their education still exist. We updated our prior learning assessment policy several years ago, but we recently reconvened a team to revisit that policy and work on a few initiatives: a centralized repository of challenge exams, a searchable (across the system) third-party credential-to-course crosswalk and a PLA portfolio course.

EF: We have been working on the Adult Promise program with Lumina Foundation since 2018, which has helped to coordinate efforts between community colleges and universities, but many initiatives have been in operation for a long time. Many North Carolina community colleges have been serving adult learners for an extended time, and universities have learned much from their expertise. Their leadership in improving transfer relationships, technical education, and industry partnerships has been incredible. Likewise, many UNC institutions have tremendous programs in place to serve adult learners and have been offering services for a long time: East Carolina University’s FINISH program, Fayetteville State’s Office of Adult Learners, North Carolina A&T’s Aggies at the Goal Line, North Carolina Central University’s End Zone Initiative, and UNC Charlotte’s 49er Finish programs have all achieved incredible results. Many of them have participated in the UNC System’s Partway Home programs that have focused on students with some credit but no degree since 2012. Other institutions have developing programs that focus on this same population, such as Appalachian State, Elizabeth City State University, UNC Greensboro, UNC Pembroke, and Western Carolina University. Innovative transfer partnerships have also been developed by NC State University, UNC Asheville, UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC Wilmington, and Winston-Salem State University that provide streamlined pathways for students, including adult learners, to begin at community colleges with a spot waiting for them at the chosen university when they complete. The Reverse Transfer programs have increased degree attainment and enrollment at both community colleges and universities, while thousands of articulation agreements have supported streamlined transfer processes. We have accomplished quite a bit in North Carolina, but with over 1 million adults with some credit and no degree, including hundreds of thousands military veterans and increasing numbers of adult learners looking to reskill or upskill, this work is far from over.

JM: How does the system office collaborate with system schools? How do they collaborate with one-another?

SG: The system plays an important role in convening cross-institutional teams to address common challenges and develop and implement cost-effective solutions, and to effect solutions that many of the smaller colleges would otherwise not have the resources to do alone. Deploying cross-institutional teams also allows the system to implement solutions faster and more effectively. For instance, upon pivoting to exclusively online course delivery, a standard course shell was developed in our new, system-wide LMS, and synchronous and asynchronous trainings on technical use of the LMS and appropriate online pedagogy were developed, leveraging the resources and expertise of both system and college personnel. Also, very recently, faculty were gathered by discipline via Zoom to have conversations facilitated by college deans and system staff about the tools they’ve used to deliver online content and the challenges they faced this spring, so they can plan accordingly for the fall. Those conversations were recorded and summarized, so others who couldn’t attend can access them, and many groups plan to continue to connect.

EF: We have a variety of meetings, working groups and professional development opportunities in place to support collaboration with universities throughout the system. We attempt to connect with faculty, staff and administrators on most projects in order to solicit input and advice across multiple levels. These have included formal and informal gatherings to discuss specific projects, as well as regularly scheduled meetings with senior administrators to discuss strategic programming and messaging. Many of our system schools have faculty and staff who have been around each other for quite some time, so along with formal opportunities to gather and collaborate, there are an incredible number of informal networks and associations among our institutions. There have been a number of partnerships between North Carolina institutions that have occurred formally and informally, due to the shared goal of serving adult learners. The System Office serves as a convener, coordinator, supporter, innovator and cheerleader for and with our institutions.

JM: How important is Prior Learning Assessment in your system of schools?

SG: The colleges have incorporated transfer, third-party assessments/credentials and challenge exams into the standard fabric of the adult student experience in the majority of their programs. There  is growing interest and energy around synthesizing those efforts as a system and finding ways to better advertise and further integrate these across the board.

EF: The importance of credit for prior learning is increasing rapidly. As more adult learners come to our universities with knowledge from work experience, military training or industry credential, more universities are embracing the need to recognize learning in ways that cannot be measured traditionally. Policies are not yet in place at the universities, but the community college system is in the process of implementing a system-wide credit for prior learning policy, which will be a tremendous benefit to their students (and ours).

JM: Share some exciting accomplishments your system has achieved. It’s your time to shine!

SG: My prior answers allude to several: increased outreach and support to students that I believe will persist beyond COVID-19; statewide collaboration and investment in tools that assist in content delivery; innovations in teaching that move more lab and hands-on instruction and practice to simulation, thus creating opportunity for adults who were unable to make the commitment to traditional instruction; new online orientations built in our new LMS, one of which is targeted to the adult learner; and the reemergence of the cross-college team revisiting PLA policy and practice, which led to our systemwide CAEL membership.

EF: The establishment and expansion of adult learner-focused offices truly reflect the institutional commitment to this population. Being awarded the Adult Promise grant from Lumina Foundation was also a tremendous boost to our work. UNC Charlotte was recently awarded the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU)’s 2019 Degree Completion Award for their work with adult learners across the institution. There have been a number of exciting policy wins that help adult learners, including the removal of a tuition surcharge that penalized students who have completed over 140 credits but have not yet graduated (significantly impacting adult learners). In February, we held a statewide Adult Promise convening, bringing together university, community college, philanthropic, political and business leaders from around the state to highlight adult learners’ needs and strengthening the services and partnerships needed to support them.

JM: If you could have/access anything right now, and money were no object, what would your wishes be?


  • An advertising campaign targeting adults
  • A surefire way to let adult students know about prior learning assessment and evaluate their chances of earning credit A high-quality portfolio development/review course
  • Scholarships to cover all PLA-related costs
  • Unlimited emergency funding for non-academic purposes (childcare, transportation, etc.)

EF:  My greatest wish right now is for our universities and adult learners to design a student-focused approach to bringing adult students to and through higher education. I want to develop a marketing campaign that rivals those of some of the biggest online education providers, highlighting North Carolina’s incredible educational legacy and its constitutional mandate to provide higher education at the lowest possible cost. I want to provide prospective and returning students with coaches to identify the best paths for them, which may include multiple institutions, multiple credentials or multiple on- and off-ramps during their career. I want to analyze workforce data across the state and identify areas of need, along with gaps and synergies between employers and educational programs.

I want to conduct personalized outreach to students who have stopped out and coach them back to finish whatever credential best serves them. I want to expand the support services offered to students to include childcare, financial aid and scholarships that are not entirely reliant on the FAFSA. And I want to find other ways of identifying student need, and behavioral health services to students facing nontraditional student circumstances. I want to highlight the successes and struggles of higher education to help policymakers, practitioners and the general public understand today’s students and today’s higher education. If money is no object, I want to support adult learners in the ways they need to complete their education. Evolving to meet student needs is a hallmark of higher education—I feel we can do that for adult learners just as we have done for other student groups throughout higher education’s history.

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