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Access and Innovation in Higher Education for a New Generation of Adult Learners

Creating specialized and innovative programs for adult learners is a way to grow enrollments, if it is done correctly. However, to be successful in this endeavor, institutions must invest the necessary time and resources to maintain and scale these programs.

A trend that has proven to be very inconvenient for the traditional academy has been sweeping the landscape of higher education over the last decade or so; it is partly due to the demographics of the 21st century workforce, partly due to the rigorous demands of evolving and emerging professions, and partly due to the higher expectations from a growing number of adult learners for whom the intellectual content offered by the traditional disciplines is neither relevant nor sufficient to address their needs and aspirations.  Institutions of higher education have responded to this phenomenon with varying degrees of success, or attention.

Of course, the well-established professions such as medicine, law, engineering, et cetera, have always had a close and reciprocal relationship with the academy and have relied on higher education to deliver the future generations of lawyers, physicians, engineers, et cetera; however, the trend I wish to address here is of a different nature, and falls outside the purview of the well-known professional colleges (such as law or medicine), or even the traditional continuing education units.

The inconvenient trend I wish to recognize is the growing demand for intellectual content outside the academe, within the evolving and emerging professions, worthy of being encapsulated in the form of credit-bearing degrees and certificates that would serve the needs of a new generation of adult learners.  This content does not fit the characteristics of traditional offerings of higher education, and in most cases requires the integration of multiple disciplines across the university as well as capturing new content from the professions themselves.

The slow pace of the development and approval of curricula as well as the inflexible organizational structure of traditional units makes it problematic to address this demand in a timely fashion.  Some institutions, such as my own, have recognized this new trend and the need for a different kind of academic unit with enough flexibility to innovate and incubate new curricula by creating a new class of schools or colleges of “professional studies.”  One may differentiate the modern units of “professional studies” from their older incarnations through their capacity to provide access to higher education in a completely new way.  It is appropriate to use the adjective “new” here both in describing this category of academic units and of the kind of students they attract.  These are students who would not have otherwise considered higher education as a solution to their educational goals.  It is highly unlikely that these adult learners would have joined any program in any institution, were it not for the availability of a targeted and customized curriculum that would address their specific needs for professional advancement, as well as personal development. In addition, their expectations from the academy are not the same as those of more traditional students.

One immediate impact of recruiting students through new customized programs is the boost in enrollment.  However, to sustain such a bonus, one must be cognizant of several factors that are taken for granted in more traditional settings.  New programs, unfamiliar to the general public, require a sustained and creative marketing effort.  Until the program establishes itself and develops a wide reputation, the new graduates will be the best ambassadors to make the larger community aware of the value and importance of the program.   Academic quality, both in developing an appropriate and rigorous curriculum and in having assessment mechanisms for improvement, is of utmost importance.  The new generation of adult learners appreciates and demands clear objectives for the courses and projects.  Another important ingredient is a delivery format most appropriate and convenient to the life and working habits of the students.

As examples, I mention two of our successful master’s degree programs: Paralegal Studies and Publishing.  Neither profession has a specific, credit-bearing, academic credentialing requirement as a prerequisite to employment, yet we have been successful in fashioning curricula that appeal to the intellectual curiosity as well as the professional needs of those practicing in the paralegal and publishing fields.  It is conceivable that with time, through the success of such programs, academic credentialing will become an integral part of these professions, just as it is in law or medicine.

Both programs started in face-to-face mode, holding classes in convenient locations, with technology-enhanced delivery and competitive tuition rates.   Soon, we discovered a larger audience could be accessing our programs, and hence accessing higher education, through asynchronous learning.  We adopted a different form of delivery for those who could only be reached through online learning.  In fact, most of our growth in recent years has come from the fully online or blended formats of delivery, while still preserving a healthy cohort in residence.

It is notable that other forms of curricular innovation are also helpful in granting access to the adult learners.  One that we have successfully employed in our programs is the concept of stackable certificates.  The certificates, if feasible, are educational modules created around a core set of competencies that emerge from a subset of topics in the larger curriculum.  They encompass smaller number of credit hours, which makes them more attractive to adult learners who might find those particular competencies more appealing and attainable than the full degree.  However, our experience indicates that the overwhelming majority moves forward to completing the master’s degree once they have earned a graduate certificate.

In summary, provision of access to higher education for adult learners through new and innovative programs, if done correctly, promises higher enrollments.  However, one must recognize the special investments in time and resources as well as the optimal organizational structures that are necessary to maintain and scale the success of such programs.