Access to Learning: Opportunities for Adult Learners to Excel Beyond the BaccalaureateElizabeth Dooley | Dean of University College, West Virginia University
Adult students have unique perspectives and specific needs. Institutions are finding a range of ways to meet these needs. For example, West Virginia, like many other states, offers a flexible, non-traditional Regents degree program for adult learners. This program takes into account student maturity, work and life experience and provides a mechanism for adult learners to complete a high-quality baccalaureate degree.
To truly give our students an edge, though, we are thinking beyond the baccalaureate.
Rising Above Competing Demands
In 21st-century America, upon graduating from high school, our society generally expects students to pursue some form of postsecondary education. This education is intended to ensure people can attain career and educational goals. However, not all high school graduates enter postsecondary education immediately after high school. In 2012, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that only 66 percent of high school graduates were enrolled in college the following fall.
Therefore, a large number of students choose a different path after high school. Many young adults fail to pursue or complete a postsecondary degree due to a variety of factors, such as college affordability, work responsibilities, academic under-preparedness, familial obligations and personal motivation. We believe, though, that the decision not to go to school immediately after high school should not limit one’s access to a postsecondary credential or the opportunity to pursue a professional career.
Although colleges and universities will continue to compete with the factors that prevent students from attaining degrees, we can offer programs that rise above these competing demands. To that end, we need to be aware that creative methodologies must be employed to attract newly committed adult learners to college as well as to persuade non-completers to come back to school.
Adding Value to Education
For many adults, returning to college to complete a degree has to be a value-added proposition, and the ability to be successful has to be within reasonable reach. The adult learner has to be presented with a tangible plan of action and a reasonable timeline. As well, the adult learner must invest the appropriate time and commit to completing their academic plan.
According to Weingand, adult students need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction; to engage in experiential learning; to align their interests with a focus area; and to see the relevance of the learning. Finally, adult learning should be problem-centered rather than content-oriented.
West Virginia University’s Regents Bachelor of Arts (RBA) degree is a flexible and functional program that captures many of the attributes listed above. The RBA places the learner at an advantage by capitalizing on the learner’s assets and his or her capacity to gain knowledge and skills through experiential learning opportunities.
Programs like the RBA allow adult learners the opportunity to bring their experience into the classroom and ultimately integrate their skills and knowledge with the theoretical aspects of the curriculum. Teaching and learning, conceptually, occurs within the context of the adult learner’s applicable experiences. In that respect, the adult learner may influence and enhance the learning environment.
Increasing Student Career Success
The challenge, however, is an institution’s ability to create intrinsic incentives that will attract reluctant adult students. In West Virginia, 20 percent of working adults—approximately 195,000 people—have completed some postsecondary college credits, but failed to complete their degrees. This is an enormous population that could benefit from what the RBA offers. Our state also has a large percentage of working adults who have never even begun college.
Since 2011, West Virginia has been aggressive about making postsecondary education opportunities more assessable to adult learners. West Virginia University is committed to employing methods that will afford adult learners a robust learning experience. We also have been proactive about creating educational opportunities beyond the baccalaureate degree.
One of the goals of our RBA program is to illustrate to the adult learner the value of returning to school. We believe providing students a viable pathway to graduate school supplies that added incentive.
Therefore, in 2012, the RBA Program Director began reaching out to graduate school program coordinators and directors and presented the concept of creating pathway/articulation agreements.
Establishing RBA Pathway Agreements
Articulation agreements between the RBA program and specific graduate programs are meant to ease a student’s transition to graduate school by guaranteeing entry into certain graduate programs.
These partnerships ensure that RBA students who sign an agreement to pursue a particular RBA-Graduate School pathway will be guaranteed graduate school admission, provided the students complete the RBA program with a satisfactory level of performance.
Through the pathways, students are better prepared to immediately enter a graduate program. Instead of just a collection of general education courses, students receive a personalized education plan that includes courses that fit skills they will need after their undergraduate is complete. Students are provided a curriculum guide, a plan of study and the program benchmarks that will enable their successful transition to graduate school.
Today, WVU’s RBA program has articulation agreements with three graduate programs: the Executive Master of Business Administration; the Integrated Marketing Communications program; and the Master of Legal Studies program. Several other partnerships are in progress.
Overcoming the Hurdles
Although most colleges and schools were receptive to establishing articulation agreements, we did experience some challenges to putting the agreements in place. Our biggest obstacle was in the logistics.
First, we needed to work out with the registrar how to move a student automatically from being an undergraduate to a graduate. This took several meetings, but was a rather smooth process to complete.
Next, we needed to convince some programs to remove some typical graduate school application criteria, such as the GRE or GMAT. Therefore, our program director began an intense educational push at prospective pathway schools and programs. She began by discussing the success of adults in higher education, their commitment, their dedication to learning, and their breadth of knowledge that can be used to spark class discussions. She then asked programs to tell her about what they believed to be the perfect student. What did that student (hypothetically) look like in terms of knowledge and skill (what level of math proficiency, writing proficiency, knowledge of specific disciplines, etc.)?
We wrote the initial draft of the pathway agreement based on those skills. We promised the programs that every RBA student would have every skill they desired by the time they completed their undergraduate degree. We could do this because the RBA program is unique; it is a general education degree with inherent flexibility. This flexibility allows us to direct students to specific courses based on each respective pathway. Then, we were able to argue that pathway students should be exempt from graduate school entrance examinations, because we “built” this student, so to speak, to be successful in the graduate program.
Ensuring Outcomes for the Pathway RBA
One of the compelling results of the RBA program is having adult learners fully understand the value of their life and work experience and how those experiences form the basis for a robust educational experience. The RBA has provided many of our students with the confidence and the credentials needed to compete for jobs that require a postsecondary credential.
A recent student described the RBA as “a roadmap to making sense of [one’s] lifelong accomplishments as they compare to the academic world.” At WVU, the roadmap is a continuous journey, one that connects our RBA students to careers and graduate schools.
It is our hope that adult learners see the RBA program as an educational opportunity: a first chance for the adult learner who chose a different pathway and a second chance for the adult learner who temporarily stepped away from higher education.
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 National Center for Education Statistics. (2014). Fast Facts: Immediate transition to college. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=51
 Weingand, D. E. (1996). Continuing education: a reminder about andragogy. Journal for Library and Information Science, 37(1), 79 – 80.
 West Virginia College Completion Task Force. (2012). Educating West Virginia is everyone’s business. West Virginia Higher education Policy Commission and West Virginia Community and Technical College System.
Author Perspective: Administrator