Aligning Across the Institution to Serve Working AdultsTracy Lorenz | President, Western International University
The following interview is with Tracy Lorenz, president of Western International University. Lorenz recently wrote an article discussing the importance of higher education for working adults. In this interview, she shares her thoughts on the strategies colleges and universities can put into place to support these students toward postsecondary success and discusses the importance of alignment between otherwise disparate and separated bodies within the institution.
1. How successful is higher education, today, when it comes to serving working adults?
When you look at the statistics, only 30 percent of working adults in the United States have a degree. However, when you look at the research, it shows that 75 percent want more education. So you think of this as a supply and a demand issue, but only five percent [of working adults] think they can afford it. …
We believe everyone should have access to affordable college degrees that are attainable. While great things are happening in the higher education space today, I think we have a lot more work to do.
2. What do you think is the biggest falling-off point for adults looking to come back to higher ed?
Affordability. When they’re going back to school, some are working, they have families, they don’t have time to pay their bills, they don’t have time to go to school. You have to make the education affordable, you have to make it accessible, you have to make it achievable. A lot of working adults had started school but then life got in the way and they had to stop and go into the workforce. So now when they’re thinking about getting their degree, there’s this fear they have in finishing what they started. You also have to make the onboarding process easy for them to get back into school. [Another thing is,] don’t add a lot of technology. Working adults are not wowed by a lot of bells and whistles. They want relevant technology that makes their education easy, not hard.
3. What are a few strategies higher education institutions need to put into place to better serve adult students?
When you first look at your classroom experience, you really need to start listening to the students and what they want. Let’s start talking about their programs — they have to be employable degrees. When they’re looking at relevant degrees, whether it’s in business, IT, HR, you want to make sure you’re matching your program with a specific job outcome. …
Then when you actually start to develop your classroom experience, the flexibility really comes into play when we have to wrap education around that working adult. So think about it as short, bite-sized learning opportunities throughout the entire week. We know for a fact that working adults can’t sit down for three, four hours at a time; they just don’t have that kind of time commitment at any one point in time, but when they look throughout their entire week, they may have an opportunity. … When it actually comes time to take a quiz or test or to apply themselves and get the grades, you need to provide them ample time to practice and learn that content and then give them a chance to talk to the faculty member.
4. Are there any changes at the administrative level that institutions can put in place to make higher ed more convenient for adult students?
First, your entire institution needs to be aligned with the student’s needs. All the way up to your Board of Trustees, your administration, … everyone within the institution has to be aligned along with the faculty.
If all three of those groups (Board of Trustees, administration and faculty) are aligned with the mission of driving [development] around students needs, it really starts there. Then if you focus on relevance and quality, you’re going to be able to achieve those goals and really deliver quality education where students are going to want to come in and finish their degree.
5. What are the most significant roadblocks standing in the way of these strategies being put into place?
Sometimes an institution’s size is a roadblock and they almost don’t know how to get all of those folks within the institution working together. You really have to have the shared purpose to be moving and changing with the students’ needs.
Another roadblock is not accessing technology or understanding what technology is out there. At Western International University, we’re very good about going out and surveying all the competitors … and ensuring we understand what’s out in the marketplace and then bringing those relevant tools back to our institution. A lot of times, institutions look only inward and they don’t have a great way to go out to the marketplace and survey and scan what’s out there for them.
6. Is there anything to add about the importance of serving working adults from the institutional perspective, and the changes institutions need to put in place to better serve this segment of students?
A lot of institutions are just making small changes. They’re changing text into video and then saying that they’re using multimedia and being flexible with their students. You really need to take a step back, look at what’s out in the marketplace, see and evaluate genuinely and ask your students; start with them.
Author Perspective: Administrator