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CAEL’s Annual Membership Survey Offers Frontline Insight on Industry Trends

Joining higher ed member organizations like CAEL can elucidate common pain points, provide opportunities to build critical relationships and improve industry engagement.

Surveys are a major asset in CAEL’s toolkit. Whether it’s Adult Learner 360 or Bridging The Talent Gap, their data pinpoint performance gaps and point the way forward for our partners. The results can be surprising, inspiring, challenging, sometimes frustrating, but always informative about how to better serve adult learners and workers.

We think it’s only fair to apply that same analytical scrutiny to our own work. And we do—through our annual membership survey. Recently, our research team completed an analysis of our 2023 survey results, based on responses we received late last year. In gratitude to our members for sharing such vital feedback, I want to share some of that analysis with you, including some information indicative of recent shifts in the adult learning landscape.

As a membership organization, we view our success through the lens of impact. What impact are we delivering, and how is that translating into improvement, from the adult learner to the partner to the systemic level? We believe maximizing that impact depends on healthy engagement levels with our most important partners—our members.

Two primary variables determine member engagement. One is their view of the overall value a CAEL membership creates for them. And the other is how likely they are to recommend CAEL membership to their peers. In turn, our analysis has found that the strongest predictors of these two perceptions are how our members rate CAEL’s reputation, our communication with them and the quality of the benefits we provide.

Our 2023 survey results indicate that 98% of respondents are engaged, up four percentage points from the previous year, with 70% strongly engaged. That mark exceeds best-in-class standards among member organizations. We are grateful to see this trend, which is driven by a sharp decrease in weakly engaged members.

Maintaining a positive trajectory is especially important as we continue to grow and diversify our membership, which has more than doubled since 2019. As we welcome new members representing new segments of the education-employment ecosystem, we must closely keep track of our effectiveness in keeping them engaged and confident that there is real value in their relationship with CAEL. That’s why we’re developing questions to cover specific areas in addition to postsecondary education. In the meantime, our running focus in this space has made it possible to share some of the longitudinal trends we’re covering today.

One of the trends we’ve monitored since we began these surveys is what respondents report as the adult learner challenge their institution or organization is currently struggling with the most. This challenge is critical to understand. Knowing where pain points are helps us prioritize our offerings and align our benefits with members’ needs.

For the first time since we’ve been tracking these data, increasing adult learner enrollment topped the list, narrowly eclipsing enhancing credit for prior learning (CPL) strategies. As an aside, this is something of a chicken-and-egg dilemma, as CPL itself can be a recruiting asset. Still, this finding validates the angst many institutions are having about demographic trends and, more positively, their growing attention to reengaging adult learners, including the more than 40 million comebackers who left college without a credential. CPL was a close second on this list of institutional challenges, followed by adult learner retention.

When asked to list adult learner challenges when they first became involved with CAEL, 68% of our members identified CPL, 50% adult learner enrollment and 46% adult learner retention. In a potentially positive sign, 27%, 26% and 11% reported these as their top worries today, respectively.

To get a more concrete idea of CAEL’s ability to impact our members, especially at the level of adult learner outcomes, we asked respondents to estimate the percentage of their adult learners who were influenced as a result of our members’ affiliation with CAEL. Almost one-third of our respondents said that at least half of their institution’s adult learners benefited directly from the relationship with CAEL. The main factors were CAEL’s help with adult learner support services, employer engagement, career- and labor-market focused curricula and CPL programs.

While frontline impact is the ultimate metric, it’s also necessary to closely monitor leading indicators. Awareness and usage of CAEL benefits form a very important one for our planning. Ideally, each of our offerings falls in the sweet spot demarcated by the attributes of high awareness and high use. Receiving top marks in this regard were our annual conference, member webinars and mini-workshops, CAEL research, our newsletter and content (such as this very article) that reaches members through our partnership with The EvoLLLution.

Our team will use these findings to determine what we should offer more of and where there may be opportunities to reallocate resources. Ultimately, our member needs dictate our content needs, from blogs and research to Coffee With CAEL, webinars and online professional development events to the annual conference that encapsulates it all.

Our members’ insights transcend even the broad CAEL community. They hold profound importance for our entire ecosystem. As an adult learning litmus test, member feedback powers our planning and ensures our ability to implement change and sustain impact.

As I indicated earlier, that impact begins and ends with engaged members. There’s no better reminder of this fact than a final finding I want to share from the survey. Colleagues continue to be the primary source of new CAEL members. Nearly 70% of respondents said they were referred to CAEL by a colleague (56% by someone at their institution, 13% by someone in their peer group outside their institution). I can’t think of a more inspiring dynamic than a community of practice that practices what it preaches.

Our survey may be an annual event, but hearing from our members is a year-round priority. If you have any suggestions, want to share a success story of your own or would like information about becoming a member, please contact me at