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Happy Endings and New Beginnings for Adult Learners at CUNY SPS

Flexible, affordable education is a huge priority for adult learners, who don’t have the resources to earn a degree traditionally. By adapting their communications, programming and modalities to adult students’ needs, institutions stand a better chance of enrolling them and retaining them.

More often than not, supporting adult learners means supporting underserved learners. After all, their educational journeys diverge from the “first time, full time” paradigm, where most of the spotlight—and resources—fall. Over the past 40+ years, CAEL members have championed those on those journeys, aligning learning with work to fuel the kind of social mobility possible when adult learners have access to begin or complete reskilling and upskilling credentials. 

The CUNY School of Professional Studies (CUNY SPS), a CAEL member institution, has been on the front lines of these efforts since its founding in 2003. One of 25 campuses that constitute the City University of New York (CUNY), its specialized mission is tailored to adult learners. Or, as Lucas Sifuentes, who is Director of Undergraduate and Graduate Admissions for CUNY SPS, describes it, it’s a place where life happens. As everyone in the adult learning world intimately understands, life involves a lot more than the time spent in a classroom (virtual or otherwise). So, CUNY SPS is also a judgment-free zone, a place where adults can finish what they started and begin new undertakings. As I’m sure many of you can attest to, there are nearly as many reasons to pause the pursuit of education as there are adult learners. Lucas shared with me what it’s like serving the people at the center of these stories and how CUNY SPS has used what they relate to better meet them where they are. 

We often talk of education being the great equalizer, of its potential to lift people out of poverty. Lucas sees this in the aspirations of transfer applicants. These applications tell the stories of mothers who paused their own pursuit of postsecondary credentials to raise children now undertaking their own. They tell stories of people facing career uncertainty. And countless more. Their common thread is being ready to finish what they started.

But all too often, transfer students find that prior college credits can get lost in transfer. That only makes completion cost more time and money, which are scarce enough for adult learners. That’s why CUNY SPS’ transfer policy is expansive from both a quantitative and qualitative perspective. Students can apply up to 105 prior academic credits toward a bachelor’s degree. And these credits aren’t limited to traditional postsecondary classroom work. For example, CUNY SPS has partnered with PerScholas, NPower and Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow to pre-evaluate credentials. Students can automatically transfer these certificates for up to 15 hours of credit toward a bachelor’s degree in information systems or any of CUNY SPS’ many other fully online degree programs. 

Another barrier transfer students may face is underperforming GPAs. While academic rigor is important, there is a certain counterproductive irony in turning away a student for grades received years ago and on the other side of diverse life experiences. It is precisely those experiences that become centered in CUNY SPS’ Jump Start program, which deemphasizes traditional academic requirements to take a performance-based view of students’ abilities. As Lucas puts it, instead of judgmentally slamming the door, Jump Start opens new ones and guides learners through them. Admissions advisors work with students to submit supporting documentation for their Jump Start application. This information can then be developed into a portfolio for prior learning assessment, an evidenced way to shorten the distance between learners and their goals and support equitable educational outcomes. 

Among the newest innovations to meet the needs of underserved learners at CUNY SPS is Career Ladders, a program that creates scholarship opportunities to support minoritized students in health services and nursing. The grant-funded program serves both individual and community needs. By increasing access to R.N.-to-B.S. nursing routes and other health care pathways for underrepresented workers, it advances careers in critical occupations facing significant staffing shortages. During the pandemic, CUNY SPS saw a decline in applicants for its nursing program. Even as occupational demand was growing, R.N. nurses on the front lines had far less opportunity to complete a nursing B.S. compared to other fields where workers could benefit from work-from-home flexibility. 

Regardless of what profession adult learners are focusing on, students often tell Lucas they would have returned years prior if they had known there was a campus dedicated to adult learners. They’re not looking for the quad—they’re looking for the most direct route to the finish line, whether that’s a new job, a new industry or just the next rung up the ladder with their current employer. CUNY SPS is therefore mindful its communications meet students where they are as well. Especially during the shutdowns, texting proved to be particularly effective in delivering reminders and links to resources that helped keep students on track for successful enrollment. As individualized as the service is at CUNY SPS, it remains a large institution. Quick-hitting communications can help cut through what students may perceive as bureaucratic hurdles, as can dispensing with academic jargon—something Lucas said he and his colleagues are careful to consider when communicating. 

Helping students manage financial burdens is another way CUNY SPS tries to humanize the administrative process. For some, it might be as simple as not letting a delay in paying an application fee be what stands in the way of a student and a degree. Unfortunately, many adult learners face much more onerous financial challenges. CUNY SPS uses its emergency grant fund, which it put in place before the pandemic struck, to help when it can. As a member of a review committee, Lucas sees the grant applications. They contain additional chapters of that same story of perseverance from the transfer applications. But for these students, obstacles to completion aren’t limited to credit acceptance or juggling class schedules. They include parents hospitalized with COVID-19, unpaid utility bills, food insecurity and even homelessness. 

Fortunately, CUNY SPS was able to increase its budget for its emergency grants in response to the pandemic. And although it doesn’t enjoy the massive marketing budgets of some of the national online programs, it continues to invest in effective outreach and engagement with adult learners, so they can learn about the CUNY SPS story. That includes digital marketing and a homecoming campaign that invites CUNY stop-outs for seamless continuation of their studies at CUNY SPS. Lucas likes to joke that he could triple or even quadruple enrollment if all of them knew about its fully online bachelor’s programs. The good news is that thanks to the resources CUNY SPS offers, it’s never too late for them to find out.

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