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Lifelong Learning: Luxury or Survival?

Lifelong Learning: Luxury or Survival?
Adults are increasingly enrolling in higher education out of necessity. It is critical for institutions to recognize and cater to this population’s expectations.

My professional life has been about a cause, a mission. It is been about providing access to higher education for adults, and ensuring their academic success leads to career success. My work at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) further refined my personal mission to CAEL’s practical mission of “linking learning and work” to assure all adults access to the postsecondary training and education needed for family-supporting jobs. My lifelong learning, up until today, has been rooted in the need to support my family — a means to an end (or M2E).

In fact, I believe the majority of adults are pragmatic learners, particularly when living one paycheck away from the cataclysmic consequences of not being able to pay the bills or support their families. The pragmatic approach of education as a “means to an end” is a survival method for the majority of today’s working and unemployed adults, who ask themselves questions like:

  • What must I do to keep my job?
  • What must I do to earn more money so my child’s dreams have a better chance of being realized?
  • What do I absolutely have to do to get a job that will help me pay the bills and perhaps even save some money for an uncertain future?

The luxury of learning for the sake of learning is decades away for the millions of adults who have not yet attended college or who have some college credits, but no credential or degree. Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of need; for many, postsecondary education has become a basic “safety need.” It puts food on the table. In fact, this M2E mindset enables most adults to experience the “luxury of learning” within the parameters of the course/training requirements. Few have time to engage in learning for the sheer joy of learning.

Taking college courses, seeking a certificate or degree or participating in adult education classes as M2E students is about choosing postsecondary education according to how it relates to survival. M2E students are generally time-crunched, over-extended adults who are the first in their families to pursue higher education. Who will answer their questions? Is it the college admissions counselor who has a headcount goal? Or is it the human resources director with the tuition assistance policy (and budget)? Searching online will likely yield a short list of schools, lead generation sites with false promises of “helping you find the perfect program match” and institutions with effective search engine optimization and large marketing budgets. The M2E demographic is in the crosshairs of marketers adept at tapping into their fears, hopes, goals —  and wallets. A wrong decision could mean academic failure (either at the course level or because the adult simply cannot persist to the credential) and student loan bills that add to the financial burden.

On the other hand, a good choice and a positive experience will move the M2E student closer to security and even to the wherewithal to emerge from M2Es as lifelong learners.

Here is a short list of how to help M2Es:

1. Credential their credits

M2Es need to see progress and they urgently need credentials, even “micro-credentials” such as certificates, areas of focus, badges and yet-to-be-designed modules that will stack into certificates, associate, baccalaureate, post-baccalaureate and graduate degrees. These are credentials that add to a resume, build academic confidence and help adults to preserve credits, rather than losing them in transfer down the road.

2. Provide credit for prior learning

Encourage adults to reflect on all they’ve learned outside of academia. This is particularly helpful for M2Es who remember their last academic experience as painful or less than successful. Promote resources that help adults leverage their college-level knowledge toward academic requirements, such as prior learning assessment.

3. Consider return on investment

M2Es seek pathways that will be most affordable and efficient, and that will lead to a more secure or better paying job. Institutions should keep in mind the cost-benefit analysis prospective adult students will be applying to their education and be prepared to demonstrate the return on investment in enrolling in their particular program.

4. Offer free learning

Steer adults to free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and low-cost phone apps for targeted, need-to-know learning that will immediately be applicable at work for improved performance and career progression. This learning may eventually be worth college credits if the M2E decides to go the prior learning assessment route.

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