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Leveraging Continuing Education Programming in Conjunction with Traditional Degree Programs

Adult learners can provide a growth opportunity to institutions, provided they receive the right support systems and specific education.
Adult learners can provide a growth opportunity to institutions, provided they receive the right support systems and specific education.

Continuing Education departments are uniquely positioned to meet their local workforce development needs while supporting and advocating for the goals of adult learners starting or returning to school. In some situations, higher education institutions and adult learners are leveraging multiple Continuing Education offerings in an innovative way to upskill quickly while staying on the path to a degree. Adult learners are a growth opportunity for many higher education institutions, if supported and acknowledged as a different community than traditional-aged students.

Universities should consider focusing on adult learner engagement or advocacy in an effort to raise awareness of adult learner concerns to leadership while working to help adult learners build a sense of belonging. As this demographic grows, we need to work to better fulfill their needs by staggering office hours or offering advising opportunities in the evening and creating opportunities for adults to network with each other to build a community of support. Simple things such as keeping the campus coffee shop open past the start of evening classes or having a mentor that can acknowledge similar experiences and concerns shows adult learners that they are supported and welcomed across the campus community.

It is important for higher education institutions to remember that adult learners are a different target market than traditional-aged students. The process of finding, acquiring and keeping adult learners will need to differ from that of traditional students. Outreach to this market needs to be intentional and focused on their needs and goals. Adults are often looking for a new career path or the opportunity to move into a leadership role. Degree programs that can leverage existing experiences while helping the student build successful leadership qualities can impact their careers. What’s even better are programs built specifically for adult learners to meet their scheduling needs—in classes with other adult learners—and professors who themselves were adult learners.

Depending on the adult learner’s situation, working toward a non-credit, skills-based degree can help gain hands-on experience in a career the student wishes to pursue. This enables the student to work in their chosen industry while pursuing their degree, many times also earning a strong living wage. After graduation, the student is well positioned and experienced to gain a management or leadership position in their industry.

A student at Penn State Berks had been working construction jobs, and he knew he wanted to stay in the industry but move up into a management role. His experience was as a laborer, so he was lacking some of the construction skills that could help him move up. He started taking a Construction Management Certificate, where he learned industry-specific skills including blueprint reading, cost estimating, construction project management and construction law. As he pursued this certificate and continued to work in the industry, he also began a business degree. He graduated with management, leadership and critical thinking skills, among many more, while working multiple construction roles. As a result, he has been consistently moving up in his field since graduation.

Sometimes the student can’t pursue a noncredit certificate and a degree program simultaneously. Allowing for—and building in—pathways from noncredit to credit gives students more flexibility in pursuing their education goals while enticing them to return for a degree. Adults who are overwhelmed at the idea of completing a degree might consider taking one noncredit class. And if that goes well, they might further consider a noncredit certificate. Allowing competencies to transfer into a relevant credit certificate or degree program opens up pathways for a student by giving them tangible skills to add to their resume. Offering busy adults the bite-sized opportunities they need to also juggle family responsibilities, full-time work and more enables students and universities to successfully cater to the adult learner market. When possible, discounts for full-time students (whether they are adult learners or not) can help students financially, while encouraging them to more fully engage with your institution.

As the number of traditional-aged students declines, leveraging Continuing Education departments will allow universities to cultivate the adult learner market and create best practices to serve them successfully. Innovative approaches to existing offerings and programming showing unique pathways or stepping stones to a degree will provide strong opportunities, not only for universities but for our adult learners and industry partners as well.

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