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What Millennials Want: Delivering Continuing Ed to Different Generations of Adult Learners

The EvoLLLution | What Millennials Want: Delivering Continuing Ed to Different Generations of Adult Learners
Millennials bring less formality to higher education than generations past, and institutions need to adapt to in order to best serve their students.

Different generations of adult learners are coming to continuing education for vastly different reasons. From millennials to baby boomers, each has unique goals, needs and expectations of their postsecondary institution. As learner expectations change, it’s important to understand the characteristics of delivering a modern experience.

To try to gain a better understanding of changing learner demographics, Champlain College conducted a survey of adult learners. In this interview, Melissa Marcello and Gabe Clevenger reflect on the survey results, discuss generational gaps in education and reflect on how institutions can adapt to this learning shift.  

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Your survey found that 58% of respondents across generations felt earning a certificate at an online college or university was one of the most effective actions they could take to transition jobs and careers. What are the features of an online certificate program that uniquely benefit non-traditional learners?

Gabe Clevenger (GC): Certificate and custom badge programs offer “non-traditional” adult learners an efficient, cost-effective solution with immediate returns on their investments. The notion of being tied into a traditional two- or four-year program can be daunting for many learners who are looking for a more expedient and relevant credential that is tied to short-term career advancement. The survey responses reflect the current discourse related to learning, the acquisition of knowledge and an increasing demand for career-focused credentials oriented toward practical application.

This is not to say that the power of traditional undergraduate and graduate programs will dissipate; in fact there are innovative methods designed to deliver shorter term credential attainment while still progressing toward full degree programs. Stackable credentials align with this thinking, though that model is in need of fresh, innovative remodeling.

Melissa Marcello (MM): We believe that our survey respondents have seen the impacts of certificate attainment on career trajectory first hand, which is why so many adults—across generations—feel certificates are one of the most beneficial options available for advancement.

Online certificate programs offer features built for adult learners, including:

Short Time Frame: The duration to completion should be short. Ideally, the certificate is completed in six months or less, allowing the benefits of the learning to be seen quickly.

Stackable Credentials: Completion of the certificate should allow the learner to roll it into a larger credential, such as a bachelor’s or master’s degree; this will allow the student to demonstrate mastery in both breadth and depth of the specific knowledge area.

Emphasis on Application and Reflection: Adults learn best when applying content to real-world situations. That is why it is important to make sure hands-on experience is a part of a certificate’s design—allowing students to gain real-world experience and engage in reflective practice.

Alignment with Workforce Needs: Workforce needs are constantly shifting, making alignment with soft and technical skills more important than ever. Adults that continue their education are already driven to achieve their career goals. But many find they love being a student, and are eager to start a master’s degree, sometimes immediately.

Evo: Why do you think there’s such a disparity between the time millennials invest in their continuing education compared to Gen X or baby boomers?

GC: I think the generational differences can be attributed to how each segment perceives the value of continuing education relative to where they are in their career trajectory. It is also important to consider the unique perception that each generation has of what continuing education actually is and how they engage in it.

Emerging modes of learning have augmented traditional approaches to delivering and obtaining knowledge. Each generation carries a different notion of what learning means to them, as well as varying appetites. For example, a baby boomer may perceive continued education relative to their historical perception of traditional higher education, which may impact their desire to invest in obtaining a credential, especially given their career trajectory. A Millennial however, may have a less formal view of continuing education, defining it as smaller bits of content they learn and engage with across different platforms. These perceptions are also dependent upon how employers convey the learning opportunities available to their workforce.

As the survey highlights, it is logical that an individual who is in the earlier stages of their career would perceive the time and money spent on professional development, learning and credential attainment as having greater ROI than an individual in the latter stages of their career trajectory. Each audience will analyze the cost-benefit factor through a lens that is heavily influenced by the ROI they perceive as being connected to their career progression

MM: Millennials are more likely to continue to invest in their education for two primary reasons. First, millennials likely have fewer competing demands for their time and money compared to their Gen X and baby boomer counterparts, who are often in the midst of raising families, paying mortgages, and in the case of boomers, preparing for retirement. Millennials are often putting off home and car buying as compared to prior generations at this stage of their life.

Second, millennials are likely more prepared for the career-long learning paradigm, and have more time to realize a return on investment than the other two groups. They’ve been brought up in the DIY boom in many aspects of life, so they fully expect that they will be responsible for their own career fate.

For Gen X and baby boomers, the calculated risk of investing in themselves may not be perceived as worth it, particularly when there are competing priorities in terms of time and money. Gen X is wondering how they are going to pay for their children’s education, and baby boomers are likely worried whether they’re going to have enough savings for retirement.

Evo: Based on the feedback from your learners, how should corporate learning strategy evolve to ensure employees feel supported in their career development?

GC: The responses to questions about visible career pathways and employer supported learning illustrated some concerning realities. Taking all generations into account, only about half felt that they had a visible career pathway with their current employer and only half felt their employer did a great job supporting career development opportunities connected to pathways. Half simply is not good enough and this reality should sound loud alarms for employers.

If you consider the extraordinary cost of voluntary turnover and the fact that employees attribute a lack of career-relevant development opportunities an influential factor in their decision to leave an organization, an organizational strategy to impact these matters is critical.

I see career pathing software services as a very real solution to this issue. These systems not only provide greater transparency into career paths across the enterprise, but they do so in a manner that contextualizes career progression to the unique knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs), desires and experiences of each individual. Organizations must link their Learning Management System (LMS) and learning providers to these systems so that individuals can construct and complete action plans that surface relevant, modularized content for their pathway.

Evo: What findings surprised you the most from this year’s survey?

GC: While I wouldn’t say that it surprised me, I was drawn to the fact that only 41% felt that their employer would support their career advancement with a certificate at an online institution. In that same vein, an even smaller percentage felt that employers would support undergraduate or master’s degrees. While there may be a range of factors influencing the data, what it says to me is that higher education must work harder to understand the unique challenges of each organization and offer learning solutions outside of traditional, postsecondary certificate and degree programs. Higher ed institutions need to increase investments in agile, on-demand, modularized content that may ultimately lead to, but isn’t dependent on, a traditional credential.

MM: There were two findings that really surprised me.

First, I was surprised that just over one-quarter of adults felt very or somewhat insecure in their jobs. I honestly expected that number to be larger, especially since there has been an increase in news and research reports that highlight disappearing occupations and full industry wipeouts.

My thinking is that in our 24/7 news cycle, Americans are just becoming numb to all of this. If they’ve been hearing them for long enough and nothing has materially changed for them, they may not feel pressure to think about the next thing. The economic prosperity of the last decade may also cause folks to overestimate their job security.

The survey underscores that many Americans worry about their financial future, but I suspect that is tied to a lack of wage increases relative to expenses, or under-employment.

The second stat that surprised me was the general optimism about career paths available at one’s employer. I know many folks, certainly anecdotally, who don’t have a sense of what’s next for them or how to prepare for a new role at their employer, making the optimistic sentiment surprising.

Evo: What are your early thoughts on how you might turn these learner insights in action?

GC: A key takeaway for me is that we must continue to keep our fingers on the pulse of the workforce through in-depth, consultative conversations with employers. Relationships formed through the truED program, CCO’s program providing access to over 60 degree and certificate programs offered by the regionally accredited online college at a reduced cost, present opportunities to foster these conversations and better understand the unique challenges of an organization.

Those conversations must result in contextualized support of their workforce with dynamic solutions, that align with organizational objectives that drive measurable workforce impacts.

This is only one part of the equation. For it to truly be effective, adult learners need a broader range of offerings and services delivered via the right solution at the right time.

Another notable point here is to step back from the survey and consider what variables influence the data. We are at record low unemployment and career opportunities are not scarce. The perception of stability or instability will always be impacted by a variable of that magnitude and weight, but it is not indefinite. In that sense, we must prepare for the reality that these data points are moving targets and our best hope of staying on the cutting edge of any shift in that reality is to be connected to it. This is, again, why organizational partnerships and alliances are so critical to providing relevant solutions.

MM: I see a growing opportunity to build and develop new certificate programs. There are many shorter credential options that an individual can turn to in order to upskill, reskill, or just professionally develop. As we think about the career-long learning needs of adults, they cover a broad range of credentials and learning experiences.

At CCO we look closely at our certificate offerings, and to ensure our programs are aligned with the skills and competencies that employers are looking for.

For us, the survey validated our direction, focused on moving beyond the degree-program paradigm. We’ve already engaged with our truED alliance organizations to develop badge programs that roll into certificates and full degree programs. I suspect we will be chunking out our education offerings into even smaller segments, keeping stackability in mind.


To download Champlain College Online’s Survey, Adult Viewpoints 2019: Economic Security and Advancement in the Workforce, please click here

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