Published on 2012/11/14

Designing a Successful Program for Adults

The adult higher education market has become a hyper-competitive one, and higher education institutions must design their programs to differentiate themselves from their competitors.

With James Broomall | Associate Provost of the Division of Professional and Continuing Studies, University of Delaware

A review of the adult and continuing education literature reveals that adults pursue formal learning for various reasons, including career achievement, social engagement, and an intrinsic desire to learn. Yet certificate programs available to the general public traditionally offer a standard curriculum driven by a body of knowledge and/or credentialing requirements.  The University of Delaware, through its “Power Up Your Career” initiative, empowers a learner to customize a certificate program to align with unique personal and professional development goals.  While the curriculum and faculty expertise provide the foundation, the learner then chooses from a menu of “value-added” career development tools and resources at little to no added cost.

The personalized learning experience is tailored around three dimensions.  First, career advisement and coaching are at the forefront.  Career exploration, resume writing, interviewing skills, and employment search and networking strategies are provided.  Completion of the Strong Interest inventory and/or the Myers-Briggs personality type indicators enhances self-understanding.  An online career transition course is available for purchase.  Second, the importance of personal and organizational leadership is addressed.  An online module incorporates an initial assessment and milestones throughout the course enrollment.  An end-of-course workshop “Leadership Learnings” allows participants to share their leadership successes and challenges.  The final dimension is to include the learner’s manager throughout the program participation in the capstone presentation.  Here the intent is to demonstrate to the employer – often the funding source – the value of the certificate program to the growth and development of the employee and the organization.

Hyper-competition characterizes the marketplace for career education for the adult learner.  The challenge for colleges and universities is to provide programs that differentiate them from the competition, and meet the diverse learner goals.  The approach outlined here allows for mass customization through certificate programs with specific knowledge and skills outcomes complemented by the development of personal values of career empowerment and leadership.  Realizing that a retail-driven “one size fits all” approach to program development is no longer adequate, the University of Delaware aligns it certificate options with the individualized needs of the learner.  As a result, since the launch of this “Power Up Your Career” program, enrollment in certificate programs has risen significantly.

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Readers Comments

Patricia Bowman 2012/11/14 at 9:11 am

Customizing higher education is the future. Adult learners, unlike many traditional-age students who attend college with less-focused purpose, have clear goals and outcomes in mind. They know specifically and exactly what they want, and for what purpose. As more and more adult students seek higher education, institutions should respond by providing the customization that their needs demand.

The services that Delaware offers are a start; I think the increasing flexibility and innovation of online learning and technological enhancement of learning provides a very fertile ground for customization to flourish, whether it is to accommodate learning style, expected course outcomes, or particular content.

Zandra Thomas 2012/11/14 at 1:37 pm

Another interesting way to respond to adult education needs in a more flexible way than the traditional fixed content certificate or degree is the practice of stacked certificates; this allows learners to select the skills or sub-areas they would like to focus on within a wider range of courses, or within a larger degree, and get credentials for these particular sets of skills. From a university marketing standpoint, this is a great way to attract and retain students. They might at first be just attracted to developing a certain skill, but many students who engage in stacked certificate learning go on to complete the entire program, whether it is a master’s degree or a professional program.

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