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Crafting an Adult Learner Ecosystem

Higher ed has a duty to provide every kind of learner with the skills and recognition they need to succeed in the workforce, which requires building out noncredit programs and training.

“Universities adapting to the new needs of the day must learn how to develop the abilities of people who have had trouble with school in their youth and have not earned credentials. They should be trained on the job, get university credit for their experience, learn in relevant courses and develop a liberal-arts knowledge that is built around their concerns. We need what S. M. Miller has called ‘second-chance universities.’ A democratic educational system requires multiple doors.”

—M. L. King, Jr. Where Do We Go From Here, Chaos or Community? (New York: Bantam Books, 1968. 230.)

Higher education fails, conservatively, 35% of those who enter the doors of colleges or universities, with national six-year graduation rates currently averaging 65% for four-year institutions. As we in this country begin to experience the repercussions of this truth, we need to find means to build what Martin Luther King, Jr. called for over half a century ago: a more democratic educational system with multiple doors. To do so, institutions of higher education must break down structural barriers between the spaces that serve adult learners—often in noncredit continuing education or professional training opportunities—and main campus—for-credit academic programs, usually designed to serve a traditional 18- to 22-year-old population. We need to engage the growing demographic of those with some college, no degree or credential (SCNC), estimated at 40.4 million in the U.S., and to support them in returning to higher education on their own terms in programs that honor what they bring and know.

Grappling with the need to serve a growing SCNC population is a challenge for American postsecondary institutions that have followed similar models for over a century, with undergraduate degree programs focused on an assumed full-time, young adult population and separate units meeting the needs for upskilling, reskilling and continuing education for an adult population. The means and models to integrate these two realms and to open better pathways for returning adult learners are pushing colleges and universities to innovate rapidly.

The program schedule for the 2024 UPCEA national conference made clear that the question of how to break down silos and rebuild colleges and universities to better serve this key population is top of mind for many. In fact, it is telling that UPCEA unveiled at this year’s conference its new identity: abandoning the name University Professional and Continuing Education Association, the organization is keeping UPCEA as a standalone acronym, with the tagline “The Online and Professional Education Association.” Gone in this rebranding is the traditional focus on noncredit continuing education and highlighted are the online and professional opportunities—both for-credit and noncredit—critical to the success of adult learners nationally.

At 2024 conference roundtable, with the mouthful title “The New Non-Traditional Opportunity: Integrating Non-Traditional and Traditional Student Experiences by Eliminating the Online/Professional Education Silo,” the catchphrase panelists used to describe this work was “everything, everywhere, all at once.” A panel I participated in, “Crafting an Adult Learner Ecosystem,” focused on our efforts at William Paterson University of New Jersey to integrate continuing education with main campus opportunities for returning adults. The new educational ecosystem we are building—with support for credit for prior learning, a dedicated wraparound student success team serving returning adult learners and intentional pathways from noncredit training and credentials into degree programs—is transforming a traditional School for Continuing & Professional Education into a planned new College of Adult & Professional Studies directly integrated with main campus academic programs.

Meeting Adult Learners Where They Are

A key element of this work is ensuring returning adults find programs and supports designed to meet their needs. Many adult learners bring prior educational trauma; their initial experiences in higher education made them doubt that our institutions were a fit for their needs or made them doubt their abilities to succeed in postsecondary settings. The reasons for which many left—financial constraints, family needs, professional opportunities—are now the motivators for their return to seek next-step education, but they need to know it will be different this time. They need to feel a sense of belonging at institutions designed for a different population.

At William Paterson, we created a Center for Degree Completion & Adult Learning that provides dedicated programming—library sessions, wellness events, career development support and job fairs, a chapter of a national honor society—focused on adult learners rather than on young adults. Engaging in these events—virtually or in-person—provides working adult learners with parallel and equitable cocurricular experiences to those available to our traditional population, but at times and in modalities that meet their needs. These opportunities also provide them with a network by connecting them with peers at similar life stages.

We also launched a new degree completion BA program in leadership & professional studies, constructed around learning outcomes rather than set courses, that allows returning adults to engage in a flexible liberal arts foundation to demonstrate key skills and competencies in quantitative reasoning, cultural competency, ethics and organizational understanding. Students can complete area requirements with what they bring in terms of prior credits or competencies that align with these learning outcomes, or they can fill in the gaps in areas of interest to them. Students in the program build a professionally focused portfolio of learning and experience that documents their critical thinking, oral communication, written communication, financial analysis and technological skills.

The degree culminates in a series of leadership courses designed to provide an understanding of theories of leadership, negotiation, unconscious bias, emotional intelligence and team building and to allow students to apply these concepts to their own workplace or community engagement projects. The program has been an empowering game changer for our returning adult learners, with 61 students completing the degree in the first two years since program launch. 68% of recently graduated survey respondents indicated that the program accelerated their degree completion, and 81% were planning on continuing into graduate study. 

Providing Credit for Prior Learning

An important component of serving adult learners is ensuring they do not feel disincentivized with courses or requirements that feel like hoop jumping or that teach them what they already know. Providing clear and transparent credit for prior learning (CPL)—portfolio assessments, challenge exams and established course equivalencies aligned with American Council on Education standards for professional certifications, licenses and training—has been another large component of creating an adult learner-dedicated campus experience.

Established CPL pathways, ranging from 30 credits for law enforcement personnel who successfully completed police or corrections academy training to 3 credits in real estate finance for those holding current realtor licenses, have motivated returning adult learners to persist. As a 2020 CAEL and WICHE study noted, this CPL boost helps propel students toward graduation and increases the number of institutional credits they are likely to complete.

Creating an Understanding of the Noncredit Credential Space

Related to building CPL pathways is the need to better translate for academics what learners gain from noncredit training and experiences. At William Paterson, we have engaged over the past two years in extensive dialogues around the need for and structures of credit for prior learning by rendering more transparent the learning outcomes students achieve in noncredit credential programs. Rather than believing we are giving away the degree, most faculty members now understand the value of what returning adult learners bring to their professional certifications, licenses and training.  

Professors who have worked with adult learners on portfolio assessments that demonstrate how their professional experiences align with course learning outcomes in such fields as disability studies, marketing or finance come away with a deep appreciation of the skills and experiences these students have, often requesting that they come and speak with classes about their work. In a parallel effort to providing academic credit for work experience, our main campus degree programs are beginning to embed for-credit certificates that can increase marketable skills for students moving through degree programs. As we rebuild our noncredit programs and trainings for workforce development or incumbent worker upskilling, we anticipate increasing connections among these opportunities and our for-credit efforts in a unit truly focused on the lifelong educational journey of those we serve in both credential and degree programs.  

We ended our session at UPCEA with the quote from Dr. King above, as it encapsulates the mission of our work in this newly conceived unit: “to develop the abilities of people who have had trouble with school in their youth and have not earned credentials.” That is the work of serving our SCNC population. “To [give] university credit for their experience” is the function of robust CPL support; and to create opportunities that allow adults to “learn in relevant courses and develop a liberal-arts knowledge that is built around their concerns” is how we engage adult learners in degree programs related to their professional goals.

To serve our missions, public colleges and universities can no longer pretend that higher education is only for 18-year-olds directly out of high school, with a grudging acknowledgement of the needs of transfer populations from community colleges. We must also be the second-chance universities that provide clearly marked pathways for those we failed to serve in their youth. And to do so, we need to find means to break down internal silos between traditionally self-supporting PCO units and the state-funded degree and for-credit certificate programs that are at the core of our mission. We must innovate to create multiple doors into a functional educational ecosystem. As Dr. King reminds us, this imperative serves not only our learners but democracy itself.