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PLA and Competency Key to Getting People Back to Work

AUDIO | PLA and Competency Key to Getting People Back to Work
Higher education institutions must focus services and assessments around the distinct needs of non-traditional students to ensure their long-term unemployed learners gain the confidence necessary to persist through a degree program.

The following interview is with Scott Campbell and Donna Younger, the vice-president and associate vice-president for higher education at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL). Long term-unemployment rates in the modern era are higher than at any time in the past century — after reaching historical highs in June 2013 — putting significant strain on the economic recovery in progress. In this interview, Campbell and Younger discuss the challenges long-term unemployed individuals face when it comes to re-entering the workforce and explain how more emphasis on prior learning and competency-based education could improve degree completion among this segment.

1. What differentiates an individual considered “long-term unemployed” from other unemployed individuals?

Scott Campbell (SC): From a demographic perspective, we know this group is about 55 percent more likely to be male than female. There’s a disproportionate number of single parents who are long-term unemployed. It brings about the complexity of issues going onto a college campus — the idea that programs need to be flexible to meet the unique needs of working adults and that often includes raising children, all of those types of things.

Donna Younger (DY): Qualitatively, there are things academic institutions have to expect from students who have been long-term unemployed. Part of it is attitudinal. There’s a shift sometimes from, “This is a temporary situation and I’m on top of it” to, “I’m concerned now that I’m a failure and I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

School becomes a great challenge because, in general, there’s a diminished self-esteem and there also can be a decline in skill. The longer someone is out of a job, [the more] their job-related skills may decay. The longer someone is unemployed, the greater the risk and the more attention institutions need to give to those students.

SC: Statistically speaking, folks who are long-term unemployed are much more likely to not be tied to a specific job market and so it goes with self-efficacy and confidence about the field they’re in. That’s also the case when students come back to higher education for a specific degree.

2. How does this impact the challenges they face when it comes to re-entering the workforce?

DY: Any student that comes back who has lower self-esteem is constantly scanning the environment for evidence they don’t belong there. One of the things the first-year experience programs have done well — thinking about at-risk students, first-generation students and long-term unemployed — is to be aware of that and to help students process their experience so they don’t over-interpret them as evidence of their at-risk nature.

SC: It really underscores the need for really proactive and positive advising on the front end of their experience. Structurally speaking from a higher ed perspective, their ability to value the experience, competence and expertise  these students bring to the classroom is really important.  This has an impact on time-to-degree and cost-to-degree, [but also provides students the confidence to realize they’ve] been learning things that are college-level learning.

DY: That has a practical impact on their progress through college; getting credit for what they’ve learned from life or work experience gives them a jumpstart in moving toward completion and it does a lot to tell them they do belong, that they have relevant skills. Particularly when adult students — the long-term [unemployed] students particularly — are part of a cohort, they see they’re not alone in that circumstance and see they’re successful and demonstrate college level work from life.

3. Do these individuals typically consider higher education to be a step on the road back to employment?

DY: Many of them, especially [the ones who have been unemployed longer], do see higher education as part of the solution but they’re also looking for short-term programming that helps them turn their situation around more quickly. There are really powerful examples of ways that community colleges have created special portals and programming for displaced workers so they can get what they need quickly and get back to work. These programs are also structured so they’re part of a pathway forward, a longer-term educational plan. They might complete a certificate program now and get back to work and then build on that over the next three years or so in order to finish a degree.

SC: There is a much smaller number of long-term unemployed that do have degrees. That being said, there’s many things the institution can do to create more flexible programs that are more responsive to the workforce demands and needs of our economy. At CAEL, we’re working for both sides. We’re trying to work for employers to better define the competencies they need in their industries and to build programs where those competencies can be developed. From the student side, we want to create opportunities and we’re helping build capacities within higher ed institutions to help serve the adult learner.

4. What kinds of changes could higher education institutions make to convince long-term unemployed individuals they should consider enrolling in higher education as a step toward the workforce?

SC: Higher education is moving in this way. There’s the development of certificates, of micro-credentials, of competency-based education programs that really focus on the specific competencies relevant for particular industries.

DY: There’s a general strengthening of relationships between higher education and employers. It’s really a powerful message to adults that their degrees and certificates are going to be relevant.

SC: The work we’re doing at CAEL really underscores the prior learning assessment (PLA) as a strategy for helping adults earn their degree. In our research for 2010, we found students with PLA in their background were 2.5 times more likely to complete their degree. That has really been a powerful strategy for many states that have a goal of 60-percent degree attainment within their state.

5. What are the biggest hurdles standing in the way of these changes?

DY: It’s easy to say one of the obstacles is attitudinal and that resistance to change slows us down and of course that can be true, but there’s also a very practical obstacle in making change within academic institutions.

It has to do with the infrastructure, with the systems we use to schedule courses, count credit, and part of what we need to do is be more flexible, create more entry points and access points and not have such a template for what we do that we can’t be responsive to the needs of special populations.

SC: We’ve also found it’s difficult to be both traditionally-oriented and adult-oriented. More and more, we’re finding that institutions that are adult focused [have a specific] vision of what that student is, [and that] really impacts policy, it impacts operational hours and it really takes things in different directions. One might be more formation-oriented and the other is more transformational in its orientations. That paradigm of how they envision their student really dictates the type of program they develop.

This interview has been edited for length.

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