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From ALFI to Allies: The Evolution of the Recently Relaunched Adult Learner 360

With institutions needing to embrace change to succeed in today’s higher education landscape, it’s important for them to survey students and faculty to understand their needs and meet them.

Last month, CAEL unveiled a revamped version of Adult Learner 360. The diagnostic tool pairs institutional and adult learner survey instruments to provide eye-opening insight into student satisfaction and educational effectiveness. Adult Learner 360’s parallel survey approach traces its roots to 1999, when CAEL conducted a benchmarking study of high-performing colleges and universities. These findings were organized into best practices proven with a proven impact at Adult Learning Focused Institutions (ALFI). Distilled into eight ALFI principles of effectiveness, they described key operating principles validated by diverse focus groups comprised of educators, employers, union representatives, policy makers and, of course, adult learners. These principles of adult learner success would anchor the parallel surveys ALFI introduced in 2003.

Throughout the surveys’ history, CAEL has stressed that institutions must embrace a process of adaptation and change to get the most out of them. Today, more than 20 years and hundreds of survey iterations later, one of the things I’m most proud of about Adult Learner 360 is the way it has led by example, modeling this principle through its own continual evolution.

It is that evolution that has made the new and improved version of Adult Learner 360 possible. ALFI became known as Adult Learner 360. The eight principles expanded to ten. Today, they are incorporated within an even more holistic rubric, the ALLIES framework. The word “framework” pays homage to the original—and enduring—spirit of the principles. In a 2000 publication, CAEL wrote this of them: “In order to assure flexibility and innovation by institutions, the principles do not prescribe particular practices or policies. Rather, they are meant to serve as a framework for assessing institutional commitment to and capacity for meeting the needs of adults.”

In today’s digitally dependent learning environment and rapidly changing labor market, it takes the flexibility of a change-management mindset to truly meet adult learners where they are, from recruiting, enrollment, retention and completion to workforce success and back again. A change-management paradigm is exactly what the ALLIES framework brings to the relaunched Adult Learner 360. The framework plots operational and planning domains along a progression of adult learner engagement levels, which helps institutions allocate resources that are the most effective for where they are without losing sight of where they want to be.

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Throughout the evolution of Adult Learner 360, one thing has remained constant. In fact, preserving that constant was the purpose behind every change. The ability to deliver multidimensional insight that charts a clear path to continuous improvement remains the mainstay of Adult Learner 360.

I can attest to that from my own unique experience with Adult Learner 360. Before joining CAEL, I was dean of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies at Edgewood College, in Madison, Wisconsin. My responsibilities covered all the accelerated adult and graduate programs, including student recruitment and retention. In that role, I partnered with CAEL for three iterations of surveys. Anyone who has worked in the higher ed environment, which is typically designed around residential students 18-22 years old, knows how easy it is to take the value of traditional practices for granted. The survey data expanded our team’s perceptions, so we could transcend those underlying assumptions. It enabled a shared understanding across faculty and staff about the variables that matter most as confirmed by the most important perspective of all: the adult learner experience.

These variables and their impact can change, including in response to institutional progress. That’s why CAEL recommends completing the Adult Learner 360 process every three years. Repetitions add a longitudinal dimension to survey results and the capacity to self-benchmark, which proved to be a major benefit over the survey cycles at my university. It helped us track our efforts to convert challenges to strengths and reallocate our resources accordingly. A great example of this benefit is the integral role Adult Learner 360 played through the three-year Latino Adult Student Success (LASS) Academy. CAEL administered the surveys at each participating institution during the initial phases. The results helped establish individualized plans to maximize the academy’s impact. Toward the end of the academy, CAEL again administered Adult Learner 360. The revealed trends highlighted the significant progress made during the academy and helped each institution channel resulting momentum toward future improvement. Other examples of scaling Adult Learner 360 across multiple institutions include KC Scholars, the Virginia Community College System and several other state higher ed systems.

The Adult Learner 360 process only requires six to ten weeks to complete. In addition to the raw data, each institution receives rollup data, which captures aggregate scores by framework focus area, including comparisons to aggregated peer performance and national median scores. The reporting highlights top strengths and challenges and includes recommendations for addressing them. CAEL experts review these outputs during a debriefing webinar with the institution.

The results often come with surprises. Gap analyses typically show faculty and staff are too hard on themselves in some areas while overestimating effectiveness in others. These aha moments are great at painting a relatable picture of institutional strengths and challenges. To help institutions fully capture the opportunities such awareness unveils, CAEL offers adult learner summits as an optional capstone to Adult Learner 360. These full-day events convene adult learner champions, institutional leadership and a panel of adult learners. CAEL integrates their collective input with survey data to tailor detailed institutional action plans.

Whether you’re interested in using Adult Learner 360 to survey one campus or an entire system, you can take advantage of a significant discount as a CAEL member. An additional system discount applies for Adult Learner partnerships at five or more campuses. If you’d like to learn more about Adult Learner 360, contact me at You can also find our latest Adult Learner 360 case studies at