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Why Adult Learner Advocates Must Embrace Developmental Education Reform


Supporting adult learners means recognizing the skills they bring and learning they acquired outside the classroom, leading to placing them on the right educational path to success.

The University of Memphis has a long history of designing programs and structures to better serve adult learners. Our Finish Line program combines shorter terms with robust opportunities for students to earn college credit through exams, portfolios and agreements with local employers that convert their staff training programs into U of M college credit. At the same time, Tennessee has long been a leading state within the Strong Start to Finish network, an equity-focused initiative that champions reform in the developmental education structures.

Developmental education work typically lives in different institutional silos than our adult learner work—but should it? Is developmental education reform important to adult learners?

The answer: absolutely.

Adult learners who return to higher education take the same placement exams as younger students and may struggle more if years have passed since they refreshed their skills. Even adults who previously completed their college-level math and English courses may find that when they return, those credits are now expired, meaning they no longer count because they were earned too many years ago or they won’t transfer due to the policies and professional judgment of their new institution.

Why Does This Matter for Our Adult Learners 

When they are placed into developmental education courses, they spend more time and more money—luxuries few adult learners have. Developmental courses not only lengthen the path to graduation but send students clear and harmful signals that they are not college-ready and need to be remediated before they can begin their college-level work. And since our returning adult students tend to be disproportionately students of color, it is notable that traditional assessments have led to Black and Latinx students being placed in developmental courses 20% more than their white peers.

What Should Institutions Do 

The University of Memphis and other adult-ready institutions have made a concerted effort to maximize credit transfer and use corequisite support for college-level courses instead of prerequisite remedial courses because we have seen how developmental education affects adult learners. Our efforts to avoid placing additional burdens on our adult students and provide wraparound support and efficient pathways have led to significant graduation rate improvement over the past ten years.

At U of M, we have also had the pleasure to work with Student-Ready Strategies, led by my co-author and fellow adult learner advocate Sarah Ancel. This equity-focused organization works on several student success strategies designed to help marginalized students in higher education, including Black, Latinx, Indigenous, poverty-affected and adult learners, succeed.

It was Sarah that pointed out to me that adult learner advocates must focus more on developmental education reform and that they have a natural jumping-off point to do so. Just as Credit for Prior Learning (CPL) is a core component of an adult learner strategy, Multiple Measures for Placement (MMP) is a cornerstone of reformed developmental ed, and the two have a lot more in common than that.

Four Reasons CPL and Multiple Measures for Placement Share Common Beliefs and Outcomes

Help students avoid taking courses for content they have already mastered, shortening the path to graduation.

With CPL, that means students demonstrate learning through exams, portfolios and credential crosswalks which helps them bypass general education and major-focused courses on their degree plan. With MMP, students receive a more thorough, multifaceted assessment of their math and English abilities, which allows many more to bypass noncredit developmental courses they don’t actually need and start their college-level courses. In both cases, students save time and money and take fewer courses en route to graduation.

Both strategies are built on faculty and institutional leaders trusting others to validate learning.

An MMP policy extends trust to high school teachers, who have assessed students in a sustained way over time, by using high school GPA and course grades as a placement method instead of an institutionally selected high-stakes exam. When institutions use guided self-placement in their MMP approach, they trust the students themselves to know their math and English competency and place themselves in the appropriate first courses in these subjects. A robust CPL policy relies on faculty trusting outside assessments, such as CLEP and DSST, and believing it’s possible to master college-level learning in work and military settings, even when taught by those without a faculty CV. Both these strategies move closer to a collaborative education system that extends from high school to work, with shared trust and cooperation among the distinct segments.

When implemented with fidelity, both strategies dramatically reduce inequities in retention and graduation based on race and income.

The combined implementation of both multiple measures placement and Credit for Prior Learning creates a more inclusive educational system, breaking down barriers that often disproportionately affect marginalized communities. When these strategies are integrated into the fabric of the institution’s policy and practice, faculty and staff can foster a learning environment that is not only academically rigorous but also supports diverse student populations, leading to improved retention and graduation outcomes for students regardless of their race or income. 

There are affordable, accessible tools available to help implement both these strategies.

Networks like CAEL and Strong Start to Finish support efforts in these areas, but even institutions that are not in these networks can receive high-quality technical assistance at their fingertips if they know where to look.

Integrating these strategies into institutional policy and practice has not only improved graduation rates over the past decade but also contributed to creating a supportive and academically rigorous learning environment for diverse student populations. Affordable and accessible tools are available to aid institutions in implementing these strategies, ensuring the benefits of developmental education reform are accessible to all.