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JUNE PANEL | Developing Learner-Centered Practices for Non-Traditional Higher Education

By making a greater amount of financial resources available to adult students, in addition to developing more flexible schedules that reflect the needs of adult students, the door would be open to a far greater number of adult students whose experience and wisdom typically enriches the experience of the rest of the class. Photo by Haykan Dahlstram.

The percentage of the U.S. population holding a college degree has not kept up with other nations in the past decade or so; in 2011, we were only 12th among nations in terms of college degree attainment by adults 25 and older. There is great concern about what this means for our future workforce. Clearly, better practices are needed to increase the number of adults with a bachelor’s degree.

The starting point in any discussion of higher education programs for adults is to acknowledge the unique needs of non-traditional, adult students. We are talking about adults with jobs, families, and many other obligations, adults with existing careers and clear educational goals, and adults all the way into their retirement years.

Regardless of the type of education and coursework being considered, adult students have unique needs that institutions of higher education are not always responsive to. When to schedule classes, when to make support services available, when adult students can best make faculty office hours and countless other aspects of college life are all tailored to the traditional, 18- to 24-year-old student.

Offering courses at convenient times, including online classes, as well as related support services, is a given if a college or university is seeking to enter or expand its services to the adult student market. Unfortunately, too many schools adhere to practices that are welcomed by traditional students and faculty, while remaining out of touch with the needs of adult students. On the other hand, institutions that provide convenient, flexible class scheduling, who arrange for off-peak and weekend hours for at least some of their support services, who create orientation and transitional programs that help adult students overcome fears they may have about returning to campus, and who find other ways to demonstrate a sensitivity to the needs of adult students are likely to be successful in attracting and serving non-traditional adult students.

Another learner-centered approach to serving the needs of adult students is providing them with a way to gain credit for their existing knowledge and experiences, beyond the accumulated credits listed on their transcript. Many do not have previous college coursework. What they do have is life and work experience. Credit by exam, credit by portfolio, credit for lifelong learning—all of these types of programs tell adult students that the knowledge they bring back to campus is valued. Such programs can and should align with the additional coursework they intend to take, while also helping them to manage the task of completing their degree in a reasonable timeframe. The Council for Adult & Experiential Learning has demonstrated that adult students who receive credit for prior learning are more likely to graduate from college than other adult students.

Yet another critical element of going to college—financial aid—is also set up to cater to traditional students; financial difficulties are often cited by adult students as the reason for dropping out of school. Further, family commitments often make the prospect of taking out a college loan daunting, if they are even eligible. Financial aid programs need to be more attentive to the needs of non-traditional adult students, either by relaxing minimum credit requirements, provided that academic progress is being made, or finding other means to recognize and respond to the financial needs of adult students.

One benefit of having adult students on campus that could be better leveraged is the vast amount of life experience that they bring to class. Whether adult students are taking courses as a cohort or are intermingled with younger, traditional students in their classes, they bring a special level of expertise and wisdom to any classroom discussion. This expertise should be leveraged, through the use of learner-based instruction and collaborative learning. Such learning should be grounded as much as possible in realistic, relevant learning situations—the very life situations that adult students bring to class. Adult learners will appreciate the application of classroom concepts to their own out-of-class situations whenever possible, to make use of their problem-solving and other intellectual skills.

It should be noted that a model for providing more higher education options to adult students also impacts the role of the instructor. While working with traditional-age students often involves some level of remediation and socialization, adult students also have transitional issues and personal issues that faculty can support and assist in resolving. In addition, while full-time faculty remain the foundation for curriculum development and program management, adjunct faculty can be important contributors to adult learning programs while serving as bridges to the workplace, as well as sources for new ideas.

None of these commitments to serving adult students come without investment. Scholarship funds targeting adult students can be expanded. Individual campuses may also have to review the potential for reallocating existing resources in order to better serve adult students. Finally, some experts have called for providing incentive funding to higher education institutions that are committed to increasing degree completion rates of adult students as part of state-based funding formulas.

As the percentage of adult students on our campuses is likely to grow, such policy considerations must be given serious attention in state capitals across the country.

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