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Four Ways to Successfully Gear Higher Education to the Needs of Adults

Four Ways to Successfully Gear Higher Education to the Needs of Adults
The higher education system is suited for traditional students, but with a few changes more institutions could better-serve their non-traditional cohort.
In the world of academia and higher education policy, we often lose sight of the forest for the trees. Recently, I participated on a panel discussion regarding the future of higher education in Texas where panelists — me included — focused on the latest policy initiatives and recited the appropriate acronyms to show our knowledge of the subject matter. And, yet, the basic facts about the critical need for greater postsecondary attainment were left unspoken. For example:

  • A recent study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found, by 2020, 62 percent of all jobs in Texas will require some postsecondary education, and nearly half of these jobs (30 percent) will require a bachelor’s degree or higher.

  • A report released by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) found only 32.7 percent of adults in Texas between the ages of 25 and 64 had earned an associate’s degree or higher, ranking Texas 40th in the nation for postsecondary attainment.

  • Finally, according to the Census Bureau, today in Texas there are more than 3 million adults between the ages of 25 and 64 who have some college, but no degree.

As a native Texan, born and raised in a small South Texas community, I know from personal experience the importance of postsecondary education as a means to expand career options and create a path toward greater earning potential. I was born to parents with little formal education but with a Texas-sized passion for public service and personal achievement. Growing up, my parents always spoke to me about the importance of earning a college degree and of the doors of opportunity that would open if I persevered. They said it wouldn’t be easy but it would be worth it, for me and my future generations. They were right. I became the first in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree and I went on to graduate from law school. Today, I proudly serve as chancellor of Western Governors University (WGU), Texas.

The need to expand access to postsecondary education is evident, but this is particularly true for adult learners in Texas. These “post-traditional” students need a second chance in a more flexible, mentored, affordable pathway. Enter WGU Texas. Our online format reaches adults where they live and work, important because we know many, if not most, adult learners must remain focused on a full-time job and/or family. Our average student is 37 years old, with some previous college experience and balancing full-time life responsibilities with the ever-increasing demand for a postsecondary credential at work.

What are some of the lessons we have learned as a student-focused university particularly well suited to adult learners?

1. A competency-based education model may be a better pathway for this targeted group

Online competency-based models provide opportunities for adult learners to leverage their past experience and job training to earn their degree.  Competency-based education differs from traditional models of education in that we measure learning rather than seat time. While there are many students who could benefit from this model, it is particularly well suited to the adult learner with some college credit but no degree. Adult learners come to higher education with a rich knowledge base and learn at a pace different from that of traditional students. One model does not fit all.

2. Successful online education requires counselor and faculty support

Many adult learners need courses to be taught at flexible times to meet their needs and their ever-changing daily schedules. We find students perform best when they can access one-on-one guidance and support from student mentors, who help them stay on track, providing coaching, direction and academic support. For some courses, students may need to move through the material slowly; for others, they will complete coursework at a more rapid pace. Faculty mentors work with students, guiding learning, answering questions, leading discussions and helping students synthesize and apply knowledge.

3. Developing strong, sustained and strategic partnerships with employers and community colleges is important to reaching adult learners

WGU Texas recently became the first private university invited to participate in “Grad TX,” a consortium of universities providing working adults with options to complete their degrees. In addition, WGU Texas participates in “College Credit for Heroes,” a partnership between the Texas Workforce Commission and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to provide active-duty, former and retired military personnel with college credit for the training they received in the military.

And we have executed numerous pathway and articulation agreements with specific community colleges throughout Texas. Of particular significance is our statewide agreement with the Texas Association of Community Colleges called “Finish to Go Further.” This program provides incentives for community college students to complete their associate’s degrees prior to enrolling at WGU Texas and streamlines the pathway for specific associate’s degrees to satisfy the requirements for general education and core degree courses. Students, faculty and staff members at participating community colleges are also eligible for tuition discounts and scholarships.

4. Degrees need to be affordable

In recent decades, the costs of going to college have skyrocketed and higher education options have become increasingly unaffordable to the average family. According to the 2013 Texas Public Higher Education Almanac, Texas ranks 25th nationally in average tuition costs at public, four-year institutions.

At WGU Texas, tuition is charged at a flat rate for six-month terms, meaning students aren’t charged by course or credit hour. Basic tuition for most programs is $2,890 per six-month term or approximately $6,000 per year. This makes degrees more affordable than the more common pricing models. Our tuition covers the minimum full-time load of courses required for acceptable on-time progress in WGU’s degree programs, as well as all coursework attempted by a student in that term.

Our focus will remain on the millions of adult learners in Texas who seek degree completion and career success through a personal, flexible and affordable education based on real-world competencies.

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