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Unfinished Business in Higher Education

The EvoLLLution | Unfinished Business in Higher Education
Colleges and universities have the opportunity to support adult learners who were unable to finish their degrees, while simultaneously finding solutions for enrollment and revenue loss due to COVID-19.

As the population of adult students begins to outnumber the traditional student population, institutions need to better prepare themselves to help these new learners reach their academic goals. For adult students, life happened to get in the way, and they were unable to initially complete their degree, but that doesn’t mean they won’t strive to finish. Matt Bergman wrote Unfinished Business to highlight these students’ stories and reflect on the role that faculty leaders play in students’ journeys. In this interview, Bergman discusses his latest book, key lessons he learned in its development and how institutions can prepare themselves for the surge of unemployment that is to come.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why did you think it was important to write “Unfinished Business”?

Matt Bergman (MB): The fact that 36 million Americans have some college education and no degree gave me the idea to get some of the people off the sidelines and back into the game after their first go-around with education. The book contains 50 stories that range from a Super Bowl champion to a “Lost Boy” from Sudan. These stories alongside the research about adult learners show the value that adult students bring to higher education.

It’s hard to believe, but the future looks bright for college and universities that help adults in the workforce achieve higher levels of education. With over 22 million people filing for unemployment since the outbreak, there is no doubt that people will be looking for credentials that help them find more stable employment in the future. This book is a valuable resource to those working adults with many competing responsibilities but a deep desire to finish what they started last year or long ago.

Evo: What were a few of the most surprising lessons you learned in developing the book and working with so many adult learners?

MB: What was most surprising to me was the fact that virtually every contributor had some challenging hurdle to overcome to make it graduation–whether it was a significant life event that thrust education back into their mind or some seemingly insurmountable obstacle that came up during their studies. The level of perseverance and fortitude displayed by these adults is definitely inspiring to the next generation of people who want to come back to school and finish their degrees.

Since colleges and universities have expanded their flexible and convenient options for part-time students, working adults have pathways that will help them achieve the quality of life they are seeking. There are thousands of credentials and degrees that can lay the groundwork for achieving one’s professional and personal ambitions. There are so many quality options for students, and many of the rigid and elitist approaches from the past are gone. There are well-respected institutions all over the country that are ready to tailor a program specifically to each individual that walks through their door. More and more colleges and universities have established relevant, rigorous and research-based curriculum with a direct link to most working individuals’ desire to grow in the workforce.

Evo: Were there any major misconceptions adult learners highlighted about their experience that college and university leaders need to understand and address?

MB: The biggest misconceptions across the popular press and inside institutions of higher learning are that adults who didn’t finish in four years need a lot of extra support to progress to degree completion. While services and support are essential to these returning folks, we must take an appreciative inquiry mindset, acknowledging the fact that these professionals have a broad array of talents, expertise and commitment to make it to graduation. If we help them see their accomplishments within their evolution in the workforce, they will be empowered to move efficiently through our academic curriculum with confidence and focus. These working professionals have so much to offer, and when we engage them with quality and relevant curriculum, they absolutely make our jobs as faculty so much fun.

Evo: As we enter a period of sweeping unemployment, what are some tactics postsecondary institutions should be exploring to improve access and persistence for adult learners?

MB: As institutions are dealing with deep budget deficits, they will be rapidly trying to plug the holes that continue to spring up. However, displaced workers will be hungry for relevant credentials that show a direct return on investment for their time and effort. We know that the federal government will be striving to get people back to work but will also invest in any training and education that can jumpstart the economy after COVID-19. Adults struggling with loss of income and increased debt will need a lifeline that can reignite their passions to find meaningful work for the future. If higher education institutions can battle for funding to serve this population, we can have a net positive situation because people will have found new life in work that they love and appreciate.

Some specific tactics to implement include making prior learning assessment (PLA) pervasive across all programs, so that adults can get credited for their college-level and credit-worthy learning. Also, advancing partnerships with industry will create specific and focused pathways that benefit employers with greater retention of talent, higher education with sustainable enrollment growth, and the end user (adult learner) with new knowledge, skills and abilities with little to no debt after graduation.

Evo: What is the most important takeaway higher education leaders should take from your book?

MB: I feel lucky that this book was published just before this strange and unsettling time in our history. Unfinished Business highlights the need for higher education to reconsider how we operate in the 21st Century. This global health crisis could give new life to working adults that have been dying for a fresh start in their careers. Here are a few opportunities I see emerging from the book and this global health crisis:

  • This gives colleges and universities an opportunity to support adult learners with some college experience but no degree intentional/focused responsiveness and flexibility as they seek a new career path.
  • The federal government can assist with affordability and access to create a more manageable pathway to meaningful work.
  • Colleges and universities can reconsider their interdisciplinary approaches that create efficiencies in programs across campus so that students have access to multidisciplinary content alongside reconsidering instructional models that occur at a reduced cost.
  • Prior learning assessment could become pervasive across all disciplines rather than in specific “boutique” programs geared toward adults.
  • Academic affairs professionals can establish additional lifelong learning approaches that allow students to come in an out when needed with short-term and stackable micro-credentials that address immediate learning needs.

Needless to say, this pandemic will ignite new ways to reconsider our business model, so we can better serve our students and create greater, more seamless and reciprocal partnerships with industry. There is no doubt that this will test our will to persevere as an industry.

To find out more information about Matt Bergman’s book, Unfinished Business, click here.  


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