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Supporting the Courageous Learner

It is hard work for adult students, but climbing the ladder and going back to school is worth it for themselves and the economy. These courageous learners simply need more support and understanding from their institutions and from society at large. Photo by derWehner.

The following interview is with John Ebersole, the President of Excelsior College. Ebersole recently co-authored Courageous Learning, which provides an overview of the state of adult higher education and its connection with America’s economic future. A lifelong learner himself, he discusses some of the themes connecting the lifelong learning journeys together, and connecting to his own lifelong learning journey. Ebersole also discusses the value of adult higher education to America’s economic future, and where criticism of the industry comes from.

1. In your book, Courageous Learning, you interviewed a number of adult learners and got a glimpse into their higher education journeys. Were there any themes connecting these stories together?

I think the common theme that was there for everyone, including myself by the way, is that life gets in the way. It prevents us from following the traditional paths.

I also think that the people that I profiled would also agree that learning as an adult is a different process than it was when they were an adolescent. It tends to be more focused, and perhaps the learning itself is more enjoyable. Certainly those who follow a traditional path and are fortunate enough to be on a college campus have fun—or many of them do as part of their learning experience—but the fun doesn’t come from the classroom, the fun is somewhere else. For adults, there’s really enjoyment that comes from the learning process.

If there’s a third theme, I think it has to do with the fact that for everyone that was profiled, education has brought about a transformation; in their thinking, in their goals for themselves and for their future, and it has caused them to look at life differently than when they started out.

2. You yourself are a lifelong learner; did you notice any similarities between the stories you were hearing and your own experience in higher education?

Absolutely. I graduated from high school in 1962 and didn’t earn my first degree—which by the way wasn’t a Bachelor’s degree—until 1982. So there was a 20-year gap during which I enlisted in the military, had a very full military career, married, had three children and I encountered a number of life’s challenges.

In fact, one of the stories you’ll recall [from the book] has to do with an individual who found that he had cancer and that he had to receive treatment for his cancer before he finished his degree work. That happened to me! It was a little later in life—after I had left the military and started in an academic career—I found that I had been exposed to Agent Orange when I was in Vietnam and it got in the way of my completing a doctorate. There were many things that I could identify with.

The one difference, I think, is that I got so turned on by the process that I’ve made it a career. I’ve spent the last 25 years working in higher education and specifically working in post-traditional adult education.

3. You went back into higher education after you completed a career in the military, what was it that inspired you to go back and get your first degree?

Well, I did my first degree which was a Master’s in Public Administration, while I was still in the military and I was looking for a degree that would help me in my military career. … However, just as life’s circumstance can get in the way of education, it can also get in the way with the achievement of certain career goals. When my daughters told me they weren’t going to move again; these young girls—three daughters in their teens who had moved 17 times in 21 years—said that’s enough. So I made a decision to leave military service earlier than I had intended to and one of the things that I started doing was teaching at night.

I found that I enjoyed that, and was good at it, and I had an opportunity when I retired to become a part-time administrator within a small adult-serving institution in the San Francisco area. … I went from being a part-time faculty member to being a part-time administrator, and then when the Dean of the School of Management left abruptly, I was asked to take over and was permanently appointed to the position and the rest, as they say, is history.

4. Why is it so important that these courageous learners complete their education?

I think that it’s more important today than it’s ever been, probably in the history of our country. You have to go to the Appendices and read some of the interviews we did with public policy people to really understand that, but I really attribute it to three factors.

One is self. You need to do it for yourself, because if you don’t think you’re going to personally benefit from it in some way, I’m not sure why you would do it. I also think you do it if you’re a person that’s married and has a family; you do it for the family as well, both for the family and yourself.

It helps open doors relative to economic advancement… there’s lots and lots of data that show that people with degrees are unemployed less. If you look at the Department of Labor statistics over the last four-five years, those with a Bachelor’s degree have never been unemployed at a rate higher than 4.7 percent. There’s a lot to recommend a degree, both for purposes of job security as well as earning power.

Right now the issue is one of stepping up and helping our country. We do not today have the workforce that we need if we’re going to continue to enjoy a high standard of living. We’re having to accept workers from other parts of the world who do have the education, do have the skills, to fill some of the jobs—particularly in the high tech industries—where we just can’t fill them with domestic labor. I was astounded to learn from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that we have 3.2 million jobs vacant right now that we’re having trouble finding people to fill because we just don’t have the skilled, educated workforce that we need. If we don’t do something about that pretty quickly, we’re going to see our standard of living start to fall; in fact there are those that suggest that may already be happening.

5. What do you think some of the most prevalent barriers to higher education are for adult students?

I think the biggest one is lack of awareness. I don’t think that the adult learner is as aware of either the opportunities or the benefits or the national need as they should be. I know the President is out there, acting as cheerleader in chief, and by the way, this is a bi-partisan issue. Margaret Spellings, under the Bush administration, with her Commission on the Future of Higher Education, came to exactly the same conclusions that President Obama has, which is that we’ve got to do something about developing our workforce to a degree greater than it is today.

I also think traditional higher education has been very slow in embracing the needs of the adult learner. They’ve had weekend and night programs for years, but not all schools have them and not all do them well. And, as somebody who’s gone through those programs, they don’t make it easy. The services that you need aren’t available nights and weekends… everything about traditional higher education is geared toward the 18-24 year old who’s going to school on-campus. That really creates some difficulty.

Time is undoubtedly a factor as well. One of the things I learned when I was at Colorado State… [is that many of an institution’s distance students come from local areas]. Distance is clearly not the reason for these people, because the distances are small. What they were doing was they were shifting time. They needed the opportunity to study at times and places of their choosing rather than being on a campus at a specified time multiple times a week or month.

Thankfully, online education has really found a niche with the adult learner. I’m not so sure that it’s as effective a learning instrument for traditional-age, adolescent students. It may be but I really am one of those that supports the idea that the adolescent needs to learn how to become an adult and the best place to do that is on campus. By the same token, the cost of higher education becomes incredible when you think about the opportunity cost, the commute cost and the childcare cost that many returning adults have to face and this is where I think online learning has been so effective.

A little-talked-about barrier that gets in the way is a lack of self-confidence. I can speak to that personally. When I went back to school for the first time after being out of the classroom for 20 years—and not having been a particularly good student that last year of high school—I wasn’t sure that I had what it took. I questioned my preparedness, my academic skills and the level of preparation at the secondary level that might be required to succeed.

Much to my delight, I found I was a better student than I thought I was. But I think a lot of adult students face that trepidation, and the first time that they run into a problem there is a sense that the problem is with them, and they bail out. They use time, cost or family pressures as an excuse, but in truth they don’t have enough confidence in themselves. I think it’s extremely important that during the first semester or two, with an adult, that we provide the support services that compensate for that lack of self-confidence.

Interestingly, despite all the rhetoric, I don’t think cost is as big a barrier as people say it is. Certainly we face increasing cost, but most of that debate is centering around traditional campuses and campus-based education. Many of the adult learners are going to school under a GI Bill or with employer tuition assistance or taking it in bite sizes and paying cash out of their own pocket, but proceeding more slowly. Mine is an adult-serving institution and fewer than 10 percent of my 34,000 students are using any kind of borrowing. They have tuition assistance but they’re not borrowing money.

6. Do you have any other ideas as to how higher education institutions could, if nothing else, reduce the size of these barriers for adult learners—if not remove them completely?

I think we need to, as a sector of our society, do more to increase awareness. Certainly, one knock that is put on the for-profit higher education community is the high percentage of their budgets that they spend on marketing. I certainly am not an apologist for the for-profit sector, but by the same token, I think they’re at some level providing a service. We don’t want it to be a case of high-pressure or misleading, but by the same token there needs to be greater awareness about the benefits of earning a degree. There needs to be greater awareness of the flexibility. I think people have an image of going back to a brick-and-mortar campus and putting in hours and hours after work and it just doesn’t need to be that way. The most successful of the for-profit crowd have proven that. Some of them, not all, but some of them have even done a good job on delivering quality products.

In addition to talking about the programs and the outcomes, the significant financial gain that a degree-holding graduate has over a high school graduate or, Heaven forbid, someone that hasn’t even finished high school, I see those statistics come out every year from the College Board. But we really haven’t talked about that as much as we’ve talked about how a few Ivy League schools are now charging over $50,000 a year. We don’t, somehow, mention the fact that those Ivy League schools only educate about 2 percent of the population, or 2 percent of the enrollment in higher education today. The 75 percent in public education, they too are increasing their costs, but it’s a case where… it’s being transferred from the taxpayer’s pocket to the student’s pocket. They’re offsetting the dollars being lost in subsidy by increasing tuition.

We need to talk about the fact that over a course of a five or six year period following graduation, the differential between earnings will more than pay the cost of what’s been paid [to the college or university]. I also think that we need to talk a little more about the cost of not going to college. Some people are questioning today, in the media—probably for the sensational value—but they’re questioning the value of going to college. I can’t imagine anybody that’s done their homework or that’s very serious actually doing that, but I’m sure it gets media attention. …

It’s not only the fact that if you don’t go to college you reduce your earnings; it also means that you’re probably less prepared and less informed as a citizen. Our democracy depends upon having an educated population, and if we have more and more high school dropouts, more and more who don’t complete college, I question what that means for our form of government.

The ramifications of not going back to school, I think, are tremendous.

7. You’ve mentioned a few reasons why, at a larger level than personal financial gain, higher education is important; from the state of the economy to the maintenance of democracy. Yet there’s a huge push from the media and government officials to question the value of higher education as an entity. With so many states already cutting their funding of higher education, do you think this will be an ongoing trend?

It’s a trend that’s going to continue, it’s a case that I think the taxpayers have spoken. They want less taxation; they don’t see the connection between having educated citizens and an employed workforce. That’s unfortunate. Those of us who are employers, those of us who are in higher education, those of us who are involved in public policy need to be doing a better job of connecting the dots.

I can tell you, one of the first things that anybody looks for when they move to a new community is, “What’s the quality of the schools?” Where you have poor-quality schools, you have squalor, you have economic depression, you have problems with crime and society. When you have good schools you see much, much less of that. It’s no different whether we’re talking K-12 or we’re talking 13-whatever. Where you have good colleges, you’re likely to find a concentration of research-intensive industries, you’re likely to find high-end employment that pays well, and you’re likely to find a much more prosperous community

8. Is there anything you would like to add about the courageous adult students and how higher education institutions could better support them?

The one point I’d make about courageous learning is I, as someone who’s been there, know that it takes courage on the part of an adult learner to go back to school. They have to face their own fears and weaknesses, they have to stick with it in the face of adversity at times, some more than others. Just as it takes courage to go into the military, I can tell you that our country’s future and its security are dependent on more of us doing it.

John Ebersole will be speaking on Monday, September 17 at the NUTN Network 2012 Conference about the connection between the adult learner and the future of America’s economy. Find out more here.

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