Identifying What’s Important for Adult LearnersDennis S. Lettman | Dean of the College of Adult and Lifelong Learning, University of Toledo
It’s widely acknowledged in education, government and corporate circles that adult learners will be critical to meeting higher education enrollment goals and providing a trained workforce to fill current and future jobs. However, for many adults, the idea of beginning or returning to college is a daunting task. Fitting a college education into one’s life situation with time, money, distance, educational preparation and many other challenges can often be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. As a result, many colleges and universities are looking at reevaluating their policies, practices, services and pedagogies to improve support for adult learners entering or reentering college.
Numerous publications have cited the issues that are most important to adults. For instance, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) and Noel-Levitz, a higher education consulting firm, have identified such institutional factors as cost, accessibility, job-related academic programs, services for veterans, opportunities for gaining college credit through prior learning assessments and career planning as being among the most important in transforming institutions into an “adult friendly” place that is more successful in attracting adult learners.
In addition, a vast majority of the prospective adult students we see, who are contemplating a start or return to college, ask the same basic questions: What will it cost? How many credits do I need to complete? Will I be able do it, given all of the other things going on in my life? Prospective students — especially adults — are consumers and they will shop around, as if looking to buy a car, for the best deal they can get. To me, it all boils down to what I call the Triple A factors for adult learners: affordability, accessibility and acceleration.
It’s important to keep educational costs as low as possible, and there are many ways to do that, but affordability is not just a matter of cost alone. Education requires an investment, one that often calls for financial and psychological sacrifices. Adult learners want to know that there will be a return on their investment — that they will be able to get that promotion or qualify for a new job, or just be able to keep their current job. They have other expenses and people depending on them for support. They need clear and concise information on how much an education will cost. They should only be required to pay for those things they really need to complete a degree. Many adults are not looking for the “college experience.” They should not have to pay activities fees or other fees for services they, unlike more traditional students, will never need or use. They need to know about all potential sources of financial support and must be able to establish payment plans they can realistically afford. The bottom line is that they need to know their education will be an asset to their future, not a liability.
Increasing accessibility to a college degree means many things but, to me, it means removing or limiting barriers to enrollment. It means reducing the amount of time and effort required to get through admissions, orientation, testing, advising and other traditional pre-enrollment activities required by many colleges. Let’s face it; going to college when you’re 40, 50 or 60 years old can create emotional insecurity, if not downright fear. It wouldn’t take much for the reluctant adult to decide not to enroll or to put off enrollment because it’s too complicated or inconvenient to do so. We should not perpetuate fear and anxiety in adults; they have enough without our help. Streamline services and only require the essential ones. Make others available but optional. Use technology to deliver services such as advising and orientation, and make the admissions process as clear and simple as possible. Accessibility also means taking advantage of innovative approaches to course scheduling and delivery. Use various forms of course delivery such as on-line, hybrid, modular, evening weekend, mini-mesters, etc. With today’s technology, the options are endless. The bottom line here is to manage and deliver academics and services such that they fit into a busy lifestyle.
The third A, or acceleration, relates to time spent on the task — making it as short as necessary. I’m certainly not talking about lowering standards or diluting degrees. But there are ways to shorten or accelerate the time it takes to complete a degree without lowering standards. Moreover, if you’re successful in providing accelerated degree completion, chances are you’re also helping with affordability and accessibility. There are many strategies for accelerating degree completion. For one, only require what is necessary. Don’t make students take elective courses that won’t count towards the degree. Referring back to scheduling, employ some creative scheduling that will allow flexibility for busy adults. Give them options for shorter duration courses, or ones that are offered on line or on weekends, which would allow students to take more courses at a time and finish them more quickly.
Consider transforming curriculum to a competency-based approach that allows students to progress at their own paces and only learn what they need. Finally, maximize efforts to accept transfer credits if appropriate and offer opportunities to gain college credit through prior learning assessment and challenge exams.
We’re committed to providing affordable, accessible and accelerated learning opportunities for adults. Perhaps you should be too.