It’s time for higher education administrators in both the non-traditional and traditional fields to begin implementing high-impact practices, which will help students break past many of the challenges they face day-to-day. Photo by SSG Robert Stewart.

For better or for worse, there’s a lot of talk these days about the return on investment of higher education even though we know education is a sound investment on a personal and broader economic and societal levels.  Finding ourselves in the center of the national agenda this election year, higher education leaders throughout all segments of U.S. higher education are increasingly focused on access, affordability, accountability, and results. Metrics commonly tracked—more frequently at the undergraduate degree granting level—are student retention, progression, time to degree, and graduation rates. Given the need to increase the educational attainment of the U.S. population to remain globally competitive, and with more and more students taking on more and more educational debt, it’s vital that we help students stay on course to learn what they need to learn and ultimately complete their degrees.

In 2008, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) published a monograph by George D. Kuh, called High Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter (summary chart here, and full report here).

These practices, common within many undergraduate curricula, are found to have a very positive relationship with desired educational outcomes. The practices include:

  • First-year seminars and experiences. Typically thematic and interdisciplinary cohort-based experiences that spans the full first year.
  • Common intellectual experiences.  Broad themes that cross disciplines that may span throughout the four years of the undergraduate program.
  • Learning communities. Might be themed student housing or other means to link students in a supportive environment.
  • Writing-intensive courses. Integrating writing throughout the four years and within various disciplines.
  • Collaborative assignments and projects. Various forms of group projects to foster teamwork.
  • Undergraduate research. Provides early opportunities to assist faculty in research projects with the goal, especially in STEM fields, of encouraging students to major in those disciplines and in some cases go on to graduate school.
  • Diversity/global learning. Within the curriculum or through extracurricular activities, exposing students to people and ideas with which they may not have encountered before. Could also include education abroad programs.
  • Service learning. Opportunities to apply learning while making a tangible contribution to the community beyond the campus borders.
  • Internships. Applying learning in a real work setting for academic credit or for pay.
  • Capstone courses and projects. Culminating experiences (project, paper, portfolio, oral examination) that synthesizes and integrates learning throughout the undergraduate experience.

High impact educational practices have a unifying thread. They all foster: active participation, a high level of engagement in the learning process, as well as opportunities for synthesis and practical application of learning. Most practices also encourage teamwork and collaboration.

Students who participate in these programs tend to stay in school, increase their learning (as measured through GPA), and complete their education in a timely fashion. In fact, a recent study by California State University Northridge indicated that especially for first generation, lower income students, a combination of two such practices had an even more positive effect on outcome measures than one practice alone.

So what does this have to do with adult nontraditional students engaged mainly in continuing professional education?

A lot. In my view, these practices could not be more relevant.

Despite their age and experience—and high level of motivation—nontraditional students have many of the same challenges as undergraduates. They may be returning to school after a long break and need support in developing study skills and time management. They have competing demands for their time and need encouragement to stay focused. They would benefit from learning communities to support them. Nontraditional students appreciate the opportunity to integrate and apply their learning. Teamwork and global and multicultural awareness are necessary skills and abilities in the workplace today for everyone.

High impact practices will work for all students, not just undergrads. Technology now allows nontraditional students to build and maintain learning communities beyond the full time residential campus setting. Many continuing and professional education programs incorporate some degree of high impact educational practices. Adjunct faculty, who are practitioners as well as teachers, tend to be creative and open to new formats and teaching methods—especially those that emphasize applied knowledge. Internships and capstone projects are commonly found in continuing professional education programs.

It’s time for more research on the benefits of high impact educational practices in the non-traditional adult student segment. How can these practices be adapted and applied to these students? How can these practices be incorporated into an online environment? Most importantly, to what extent do they improve learning outcomes and degree/program completion?

I’m interested in your thoughts and ways your university may be applying these practices to your own nontraditional students.

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Readers Comments

I agree this has a lot to do with adult nontraditional students and then some.

First, the adult segment is more diverse and dealing with ever-changing tension of balancing work/life/career obligations and demands. I experienced this difference first-hand while working on my masters in my early 30s – the odds are stacked against you from the start of your first class. Dealing with a family emergency, handling a sudden business trip, worrying about your job or even figuring out how to pay for your next class – it’s a different ball game. So recognizing and understanding the unique needs of adult learners is the foundation to designing HE strategies that support this population and promote their success.

Hence, applying traditional high impact practices such as FY programs may not translate to adult student success without major changes to meet their needs. Having delivered technology-rich retention systems to HEIs, I can attest that most retention systems (and supporting practices) favor traditional 18- to 23-year-old high school graduates. They focus on early warning, intervention and coaching for traditional students. While I concur more research on the impact of such practices in the non-traditional segment is useful, I’d submit a generally different approach is needed for adult student in two areas:
• Focusing on different measures. For example, the traditional segment cherished and tracks “FY” retention rates…for adults, one year is a long time to get a pulse. We should have measures further up the lifecycle and more frequent such as the start rate, drop rate, course-to-course persistence within a program (not semester-to-semester), engagement, completion and even consider employment or advancement…
• Designing systematic approaches that impact the above measures, in particular persistence in, and completion of quality degree and certificate programs, and entry into subsequent employment or advancement. These might include institutionalizing such novel practices goal and career mapping and tracking, badging, event-driven communications, continuous admission and registration, and career, financial and work/life balance support…I also think these approaches can be “ported” to partnering with businesses as well to help them do the same with their employees…

With falling completion (and retention) rates for adult students, this is a big problem. With tens of millions of adults who don’t yet have degrees, it is a national priority for HEI leaders to reach and cultivate more non-traditional success…Thank you, Cathy, for calling attention to this issue and promoting the dialogue among senior CPE leaders!

Paul Maurice 2012/05/02 at 4:32 pm

This is a really interesting line of debate — do adult and traditional-age students actually react differently to high-impact practices, or are they positive for everyone?

If so, should we not be trying to put effort into creating a set of high-impact practices that work for both groups rather than just the one?

Suzanne 2012/05/07 at 4:56 pm

My research on Service-Learning (a high impact practice) with adults aged 30 – 50 revealed great promise! Student felt connected, that there were venues for them to connect their past and present experiences and even expressed a sense of coming ‘home’ in that they were serving their own communities! Great article – yes we need more research on these practices with nontraditional students!

Jennifer Lillibridge 2013/05/04 at 4:01 pm

I would like to know if anyone has experience with high impact practices at the graduate level in a particular graduate program. I teach graduate students getting their Master of Science in Nursing and I am trying to find evidence on implementing these practices at the graduate level and in the online environment. In nursing we tend to focus on active teaching/learning strategies, which may be unique to nursing. I am involved in a Faculty Learning Community and the goal is to implement high impact strategies into a class. As I only teach online, I am obviouslyl in this enviornment. The literature seems to be sparce in this narrowly focused area.

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