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How Adult-Serving Institutions Can Continue To Thrive As Interest In Serving Adults Grows

The EvoLLLution | How Adult-Serving Institutions Can Continue To Thrive As Interest In Serving Adults Grows
Higher education has been evolving into an adult-focused industry since the Second World War—yet the assumptions and motivations that underpin current policies and practices remain rooted in obsolete notions of what works for “traditional” students.

With technological advancements, shifting demographics and a constantly evolving regulatory environment, higher education is an industry in flux—and nowhere more so than non-traditional education. As the former president of one of the longest-standing adult-focused universities, George Pruitt understands this environment better than most. In this interview, he offers his insights on the complexities and challenges of adult-serving higher education, and explains why innovation plays such a vital role in shaping both the past and future of this market segment. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it so important for leaders of adult-serving institutions to stay on top of emerging trends in higher education?

George Pruitt (GP): The regulatory environment for higher education is very complicated, and you have to understand it in order to position your institution to thrive. Firstly, many of the tools, practices and principles that adult-serving institutions pioneered specifically for adult students are being applied to traditional students, at traditional institutions, with mixed results.

Secondly, there has been a proliferation of different kinds of practitioners in the adult-serving marketplace. Many of the proprietary, for-profit institutions that moved into the adult sector abused their place, and that has led to an incredibly complex regulatory environment. Not all of the proprietary for-profits are bad actors, but there were enough that the government felt it had to step in. The regulatory response from the federal government, from the states, and from accreditors has made the industry a volatile, constantly changing environment.

If you’re not aware of everything that’s gone into the regulatory environment impacting adult-serving higher ed today, it’s impossible to respond to and influence policy changes. You need to be able to position your institution to wade through all of that confusion and provide high-quality outcomes for your students.

Evo: What are a few examples of regulations that are having the most significant impact on adult-serving colleges and universities?

GP: The State Authorization Rule comes to mind. A few years ago, several proprietary for-profit institutions came into the marketplace and compromised the quality of some of the online practices that the rest of us had developed. The federal government decided that if a student chose to take an online course through a particular institution, that institution, whether it had a fiscal presence in the state or not, had to get licensed by the state where the student resided. So, if a student from New Jersey that’s going to Rutgers decided to take a course from Rutgers while working for their congressman in Washington, Rutgers would have to be licensed in the District of Columbia for the student to take the course, even if the institution had no fiscal presence in the state.

That approach made no sense. It would have meant that for colleges and universities to offer distance ed courses, they would have to get licensed in all 50 states. This would have led to licensing costs of over one million dollars a year. One state’s license application was 36 inches tall.

The fact of the matter is that, while using and misusing technology can be problematic, it is a wonderful and extraordinary tool. Instead of encouraging the appropriate application of technology to distance education, the federal government proposed a regulatory structure that would have stifled, if not eliminated, the use of technology to empower students and increase the effectiveness of the learning process.

The other regulation that I’ll highlight is the credit hour rule, when the Department of Education introduced a rule that a college credit hour had to be defined by the number of hours a student spent in a classroom. That’s nonsensical. A credit hour refers to the academic content of a course. What about internship, apprenticeship and residency programs?

The intent behind both of these rules was sensible, but they fell apart in practice. If you’re an adult-serving institution, you have to be aware of these sorts of regulations and try to influence their development so that they can accommodate adult students. There’s no way you can do that unless you constantly engage with the external regulatory environment.

Evo: What are a few of the challenges that adult-serving institutions are facing when looking at the management and operations of these organizations?

GP: The first challenge is that the higher education marketplace has radically changed over the last 30 or 40 years. Higher education used to be the exclusive purview of 18- to 22-year-olds, but that changed following WWII with the introduction of the GI Bill, when returning service members had their college tuition paid for by the federal government. That evolution has continued to the point where, today, the majority of college students in the United States are part-time learners over the age of 25.

When you look at the policies coming out of state and federal governments, including the measures of accountability that are used to gauge the quality of institutions, those policies are predicated on the assumption that we’re still dealing with 18-year-old, full-time students. So, how do you fit adult learners into a policy framework that makes assumptions about higher education that haven’t been current for 50 years?

Take graduation rates. The current assumption is that students go to college for four years and then graduate, but if you’re a working adult taking two courses a semester, it will take 10 years to graduate.

That’s challenging. Traditional measures of quality and outcomes don’t always work for adult-serving institutions. Graduation rates don’t measure the quality of the institution—they measure the demographics of the student body. Yet it’s a measure on which the quality of an institution is based.

That’s not to say that adult-serving institutions should be off the hook for quality measures, but that the measures should be relevant to our demographic. The good institutions, including Thomas Edison, do a good job of saying, “Those measures don’t work for adult students, but these ones do.”

The second challenge is that there is a lot of noise in the higher ed marketplace. When adult-serving institutions emerged, we were very focused on developing policies and programs for our specific client base. Most of the processes that we developed are based on a sound body of research on the characteristics and learning style of adult students.

Today, those adult-focused practices and processes are being adopted by institutions serving traditional students, which makes it hard for people to make an intelligent choice about where to find a high-quality institution that’s tailored to an adult learner. Furthermore, many colleges and universities that aren’t serving adult students are using the same terminology to advertise programs, when in fact they are targeting a different clientele. It’s difficult for adult-serving institutions to get their message out, and for students to sift through all the noise in the marketplace.

Evo: As increasing numbers of adults and non-traditional students look to enroll in colleges and universities, we’re seeing a number of traditional institutions try to fit adult learners into a model that’s built for traditional students, and then get surprised when the adult learner isn’t successful.

GP: Fitting adult students into a traditional model doesn’t work. It never worked, and it never can, but that doesn’t mean traditional institutions aren’t still trying. Research-based adult-serving institutions understand that, but others in our community do not.

You’ll hear some of my colleagues talk about serving adults as a way to “diversify revenues”—they see online education as a way to cut costs and create efficiencies. They assume that there’s no difference between teaching an 18-year-old and teaching a 40-year-old. They assume that things like prior learning assessment and distance education are somehow cheap, because you don’t have to build buildings, but the fact of the matter is that a high-quality, technologically delivered course is very expensive. Online programs aren’t designed to be profitable; that’s a flawed assumption. Any schools going into online education because they think it will be a source of revenue will fail, because if it’s not resourced properly it won’t lead to good outcomes.

Evo: What are some of the trends driving these challenges for adult institutions?

GP: Adult-serving institutions were created through innovation to serve a client base that wasn’t historically served. We spent a lot of time on research and understanding practice through hard data. When I hear the rest of the community talk about outcomes assessment and competency-based education, Thomas Edison University has been doing it for 40 years.

The thing about innovation is that if you’re an institution that embraces it, it never changes. You’re always learning something; new technologies are constantly emerging. We’ve learned things from game theory about how video-gaming processes can be used to enhance learning. There’s an explosion of knowledge taking place about how to make learning better and more accessible. That’s why this space is so exciting.

There’s a lot of disruption among adult-serving institutions. Most of the large proprietaries that came into the marketplace are in rapid decline, and no surprise. Candidly, they put profit before quality.

That said, some proprietary institutions have been very successful. Those that have stayed in their lane and maintained a focus on quality have become effective.

It’s sometimes hard to carve out your own niche in the marketplace. Thomas Edison has done well because we’ve never tried to be the largest institution of our kind: we simply want to be among the best. Because of that, and because of our strong brand and our role in pioneering many adult-education practices, the quality of our work continues to be exceptional.

Evo: As regulatory challenges make it more difficult to serve learners, what’s it going to take for adult-serving institutions to remain competitive?

GP: I think they need to be much more actively engaged in the public policy debate.

They also have to remain committed to who they are. Many institutions chase fads, but you need to stay grounded and committed to your mission. One of the ways Thomas Edison has remained strong is because of our brand and reputation of quality. We know our lane, and we stay in it.

Institutions that recognize this will be okay, but others won’t. There will be shakeout, and that’s inevitable. A lot of proprietary institutions haven’t survived, and the ones that did are merging. Their influence is gravely diminished. Institutions that don’t forget where they came from, that are obsessive about the quality of the student experience and focus their resources on what they were created for rather than chasing stakeholder returns, will be fine.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the future of adult-serving institutions?

GP: The 50-year evolution of higher education that was triggered after WWII is continuing to take place. When it comes down to it, the question is whether the higher education community is going to be responsive to that evolution. The future of this country depends on the quality of its human capital, and one of the biggest generators of human capital is American higher education. Robust, high-quality, affordable higher education is absolutely crucial to the survival of our society.

I don’t mean that hyperbolically. This country is very young—we’re not even 250 years old. I just got back from Italy where I saw a church that took 250 years just to build. So, in the life of nations, this country is an experiment and the jury is still out about how it’s going to progress. Part of answering that question is going to be the quality, relevance, robustness, and ability to command public support for American higher education.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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