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Retention
7/18/2014 12:00 AM
Image of black, older doctoral student seated behind a stack of binders.
Older, black students in doctoral programs can sometimes feel alone, leading them to drop out. Credit: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock.com.

Anyone who has ever completed a doctoral program knows that a successful dissertation defense ends a grueling, yet rewarding rite of passage. But too often, the voyage is unnecessarily more difficult for the African-American adult learner.

Older, black students in doctoral programs can sometimes feel alone, leading them to drop out. Credit: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock.com.With employers requiring more education of their employees, while the bachelor’s degree is being increasingly equated to a high school diploma and the master’s to an undergraduate degree, more working adults are considering and pursuing postgraduate studies. Colleges are becoming universities to accommodate that trend.

However, serving this population is challenging. The adult learner experience is compounded by life’s obligations. For the black adult learner, the problem is exacerbated by perceived oppressions that can discourage enrollment in doctoral programs, increase premature departure, and lead to leaving with “all but dissertation” status or less.

Anyone who has ever completed a doctoral program knows that a successful dissertation defense ends a grueling, yet rewarding rite of passage. But too often, the voyage is unnecessarily more difficult for the black adult learner. That’s why higher learning institutions should: (1) recognize and understand their challenges, (2) implement changes to better support these students, and (3) institute viable retention practices at the doctoral level.

Know what the numbers say

Recent research provides ammunition to help you advocate for greater support for your institution’s black doctoral students.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than 2 percent of the U.S. population has doctoral degrees. The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics indicates that African-American doctoral enrollment is on an incline but significantly lags that of white Americans. In 2008, African-Americans earned a mere 6.1 percent (3,906) of doctoral degrees, compared to 57.1 percent (36,390) for white Americans. Yet that represents an increase of more than 50 percent from the doctoral degrees conferred to African-Americans in 1995 (1,667).

It’s clear that many working adults recognize the value of attaining doctoral degrees. Yet blacks may face considerable challenges beyond those faced by all adult learners.

The gaps for these adult learners are also disproportionate for science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — majors. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reported the disparities for doctorate degrees earned by black students. In 2004, less than 6 percent of doctoral degrees conferred to blacks were in fields other than education. Additionally, black males trailed behind black women, with women earning 65.5 percent of doctoral degrees conferred to black students.

The study also reported that:

  • Black doctoral students are older than their white counterparts. In 2003, the average age of black students who earned doctoral degrees was 37.8 years, compared to 33.5 years for all Americans.
  • Black students take longer to earn their degrees. On average, black individuals earned doctorate degrees 12.5 years after earning a bachelor’s degree (10.5 years for whites), and 9.7 years after enrolling in graduate school (8.3 years for whites).
  • Academia was a common career plan. Nearly 44 percent of black doctorate earners planned careers in academia.

Understand, recognize challenges

Although the doctoral journey is challenging for most, it must not oppress individual groups of people. Institutions and educational leaders should recognize and understand what researchers have discovered, including that:

  • First-generation students may need additional support. As is the case with many black undergraduates, doctoral students are often the first in their families to pursue postgraduate degrees. Special institutional supports can give those students a sense of belonging and ultimately confidence to complete their academic journeys.
  • Avoiding stereotypes and personal biases is paramount. Doctoral students often report that faculty members are unable to relate to their life experiences, have low expectations of them, and perceive them as less than capable, despite their academic accomplishments up to that point.
  • Treating candidates with respect is essential. Some black students report feeling that their advisors criticized, belittled, insulted and discouraged their research topics, particularly those that had a cultural focus. They also felt advisors often downplayed the value of black studies and were oblivious to the disparities experienced by people of color.
  • Providing adequate guidance and direction is absolutely necessary. Students expressed feelings of insecurity and unpreparedness for the dissertation phase. Many felt blindly following their advisor was the only way to finish on good terms, but that’s a strategy likely to stifle development.
  • Increasing diversity in faculty leadership helps students feel that they belong. When searching for advisors, many students reported that there were no black advisors available to them, or available advisors were apprehensive about tackling controversial topics.

Use these tips to implement viable doctoral-student retention practices

While providing sound support to all adult learners is important, those at the doctoral level may tend to get overlooked simply because they’ve made it this far. That is, institutions may focus their retention efforts on students at lower levels. But when it comes to black doctoral students, feelings of not belonging, negative stereotypes, and a lack of diversity in their programs can all stymie progress. Help ensure their success by:

  • Developing mentors with purpose and passion. Institutions should train dissertation advisors on processes and procedures for a positive advisor-student relationship. Although this is a continuous learning experience for all involved, clarity enhances the journey. Conduct regular in-service workshops for this purpose.
  • Diversifying mentor availability. Some experiences, like the journey to a doctoral degree, can seem foreign to some individuals. Having someone that black students can relate to or who looks like them can help. If your institution lacks diverse mentors, consider teaming with faculty members and leaders from historically black colleges and universities to serve your own black students better.
  • Ensuring there is respect for students’ dissertation topics. If potential advisors do not have an interest in a topic, possess personal biases, have hidden agendas, or exude a spirit of arrogance, they should decline to serve in an advisory capacity.
  • Spelling out the journey. Advisors should not assume that all doctoral students have a firm grasp of what lays ahead of them. Ask them to go the extra mile and provide students a thorough overview of the steps needed to earn their degrees so that everyone is on the same page. That can save time and reduce frustration levels.
  • Communicating clearly and regularly. In the digital age, it is easy for communications to be misinterpreted. Students can be and often are sensitive. Advisors should review all communications for tone before hitting the “send” button.
  • Paying it forward. Advisors not only groom doctoral students for the dissertation journey, but also encourage continual research and publication, and prepare students to serve as advisors. Students may mimic their experiences, so it’s imperative for them to have good role models.
  • Remembering that patience is a virtue. It’s important for advisors to remember that they were once doctoral students. They should strive to serve others in the manner that they would like to be served — passionately, professionally and purposefully.

According to Vincent Tinto’s theory of institutional departure, doctoral students must be academically and socially integrated into their institutions to persist. Integration occurs in three stages: (1) separation, or the first-year doctoral experience; (2) transition, which consists of passing qualifying exams, proposal defense and advancing to candidacy; and (3) incorporation, or the successful dissertation defense and degree conferment.

By understanding and recognizing the aforementioned challenges and strategies, institutions can academically and socially integrate students, increase their representation in doctoral programs, and help ensure their completion. With blacks’ interest in academia when pursing doctoral degrees, institutions have the opportunity to diversify their faculty bodies, leadership and mentor pool to reduce disparities and bridge the enrollment and retention gaps in doctoral programs.

The Board Speaks
7/14/2014 12:00 AM

As much of the higher education world embraces career-oriented education and older students gravitate toward programs with clear applicability to jobs and careers, several members of Recruiting & Retaining Adult Learners’ advisory board discuss whether there’s still a place in the adult learning landscape for the types of learning traditionally offered by liberal arts and sciences colleges.

If your institution or unit is under the gun — either from the local business community or the college leadership — to offer more technical programs to boost adult enrollments, you may find our board members’ insights and advice valuable.

As much of the higher education world embraces career-oriented education and older students gravitate toward programs with clear applicability to jobs and careers, several members of Recruiting & Retaining Adult Learners’ advisory board discuss whether there’s still a place in the adult learning landscape for the types of learning traditionally offered by liberal arts and sciences colleges.

If your institution or unit is under the gun — either from the local business community or the college leadership — to offer more technical programs to boost adult enrollments, you may find our board members’ insights and advice valuable.

Q: Does the increasing demand for career-oriented education leave room for the traditional-type learning colleges and universities have historically provided?

Alan Mandell: This is obviously a huge topic, and as I see it, the issue really has to do with two distinct things. First, there’s the crass question of markets and how any institution finds students at a time when competition for adult learners is fierce. Institutions are really worried because the number of students of a traditional college age is smaller than it was 10 or 20 years ago. Then there’s the question about what our core values are. How can institutions remain loyal to those core values given what the market currently demands of them?

Adult students are by and large practical citizens. They’re worried about their jobs and their futures, about being stuck where they are or being able to navigate difficult life transitions. For us to discard those feelings, worries and realities of our students is silly because those are our students. And it’s condescending, because it means we’re not taking our students seriously.

So the question then is this: How do we take our students and their needs seriously for career-oriented education and at the same time not forgetting about a so-called traditional liberal arts education? Can you have them both simultaneously? It’s my argument that you can — absolutely yes.

Barbara Randazzo: We end up questioning liberal arts whenever there’s some sort of financial crisis in higher education. The reality is that it’s costing us entirely too much to educate our students. At the same time, corporations are partnering with colleges to create a skilled workforce but cutting out anything that in their view is extraneous, and often it’s the more traditional kind of instruction.

However, I feel like in higher education, we’ve come full circle and are at the realization that while technical skills are important to employers, we want college graduates who also have critical thinking and communications skills and can think scientifically or mathematically.

Karen Heikel: Here in Wisconsin, our governor has been on the forefront of pushing for more vocational and technical education. We work in the lifelong learning and community engagement divisions with what we call degree-completion programs to integrate that career-based learning with a more traditional liberal arts curriculum. We take the credits students bring us from vocational or technical programs, and then we’re providing the liberal arts edge to the technical skills they already have.

What we find in talking to our clientele is that employers certainly are looking for technical skills, but they’re also looking for what we do best — the writing, the critical thinking and the problem-solving skills. So we use traditional liberal arts courses to round out our students.

Shelly Neal: From my perspective, it’s all about ensuring maximum access for our students. I don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to higher education. Rather, I think we need to be able to provide a wide spectrum of choices. Whether it’s traditional, online degrees, technical education or competency-based programs — they’re all important and provide value to our students.

Mandell: This question of access is a gigantic one, because it’s why we’re here — to provide access to students who at previous times and situations have gotten cut off. An adult-friendly institution should, in my view, have a flexible transfer policy, rather than asking students to start from scratch. It must recognize that adult students come with valuable skills and understandings. That’s where the whole world of prior learning assessment is connected to this. So if people have skills and knowledge applicable to degrees, let’s then, as was said previously by someone else, provide the liberal arts edge.

For instance, if someone is interested in aviation, let’s incorporate the history of aviation into his studies. If someone is a police officer looking to advance in his job, let’s incorporate some sociology about what’s going on in urban areas that’s relevant to his work. If a person is part of the business world, then business ethics is completely relevant.

If I go to any company and ask, “Who are you looking for?” I’d be shocked if they didn’t say, “We want people with technical skills but who can also think critically and analytically — who can raise the hard questions, problematize, focus and persevere.” Years ago there happened to be an IBM person, who said to me, “We can teach the technical skills better than any university, but we can’t teach those other skills, the critical thinking and analysis.”

Q: Given the push for job-related technical education, how can administrators ensure traditional learning remains a part of adult-centered programs?

Randazzo: At whatever level you are in your organization, it’s already your job to make the case for everything you do. So make it your job to make the case for this too. Current conditions and adult learners demand that we offer career-focused programs, so that’s a road we have to take. But incorporating a liberal arts component can help us bridge those programs with the core mission of our institutions. That’s a way to remain competitive while continuing to capitalize on our strengths.

Neal: You have to continuously keep talking about this, because it’s an important issue, and it can be forgotten in the push to compete for adult learners. It’s important to remember that our job isn’t just to prepare adults for jobs, but to also prepare them for the changes they will inevitably see in their careers. A solid liberal arts foundation is what will help our graduates navigate major transitions in their careers.

Mandell: None of these discussions exist in a vacuum. They exist within the greater context of the economy, the politics of the day, and prevailing ideologies. It’s not like having an abstract conversation on what’s good. With the unbelievable pressure on institutions to focus on practical skills and careers, how do we respond at this moment, knowing that we need to attract adult learners who care about careers and uphold the values of teaching and learning we care so deeply about? This is tricky because the politics are loud at the moment. But we have to show that we can do both things — respond to the needs of students, what they know and their concerns, and at the same time integrate what’s defined as a liberal arts and sciences education in a million different ways.

Heikel: If you keep satisfying students through programs that provide a well-rounded education, and pushing them to grow, the demand for those programs will never go away. Be open to what students bring with them as adults, and provide the kinds of courses you know you do well to complement existing skills and expertise. Do those things right and you’ll be OK.

Use these strategies to produce well-rounded programs, graduates

Providing programs that are responsive to the needs of career-minded adults in a sagging economy requires providing them with the technical skills they need to quickly jump into jobs. At the same time, those technical skills will only take them so far. To successfully climb the career ladder and navigate changes in their professional lives, they need the sorts of skills offered by more traditional liberal arts and sciences instruction, such as critical thinking, analytical and problem-solving skills. So how can you equip your adult learners with both? These strategies may help:

  • Help top campus leaders understand the need for both technical and traditional academic skills to exist simultaneously in your programs. Explain how the technical skills piece helps meet market demands, while the traditional academic skills piece prepares graduates for long-term success while also bridging technical programs to the institution’s core mission, Randazzo said.
  • Pay close attention at the curriculum design stage. Make sure that as programs are teaching adults technical skills, they’re also providing an academic context for those skills, Mandell suggested.
  • Encourage individual instructors to find ways to bridge the technical to the academic. Even if their courses are very technical in nature, they should feel empowered to find ways to bring greater academic context to their instruction, Mandell said.
  • Ensure institutional policies allow adults to make use of what they know. If adult learners come to your institution with a wealth of technical skills, find a way to allow them to apply that to degrees and then provide a “liberal arts edge” to round out what they know and help them complete degrees in the fastest, least costly way possible, Heikel suggested.
Adult Learning
6/30/2014 12:00 AM

Recently, I was in a planning meeting with about 25 colleagues. The leader started the meeting with an activity. She showed a three-minute video about the waggle dance of the honey bee. The dance tells others in the hive where they can find flowers — and therefore pollen.

The meeting leader used the metaphor to lead a discussion on how a new faculty group-mentoring project might work. I was completely fascinated by the activity and participated with enthusiasm. But I was also keenly aware that some of my co-workers were on their phones or on the edge of their seats, ready to jump up and run screaming from the room.

Recently, I was in a planning meeting with about 25 colleagues. The leader started the meeting with an activity. She showed a three-minute video about the waggle dance of the honey bee. The dance tells others in the hive where they can find flowers — and therefore pollen.

The meeting leader used the metaphor to lead a discussion on how a new faculty group-mentoring project might work. I was completely fascinated by the activity and participated with enthusiasm. But I was also keenly aware that some of my co-workers were on their phones or on the edge of their seats, ready to jump up and run screaming from the room.

On the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory, I am an INFJ — an idealist who does well with theory. The metaphorical activity was right up my alley. Not so with many of my colleagues who are much more practical and concrete in their thinking.

The Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory maintains that there are 16 different personality types (see Table 1) among the adult population.

Table 1: Myers-Briggs Personality Types

Personality Type

Dominant Function

Auxiliary Function

ISTJ

Introverted Sensing — factual and practical.

Extraverted Thinking — objective decisions and structure.

ISFJ

Introverted Sensing — factual and practical.

Extraverted Feeling — interpersonally based decisions and structure.

INFJ

Introverted Intuition — inspirations and possibilities.

Extraverted Feeling — interpersonally based decisions and structure.

INTJ

Introverted Intuition — inspiration and possibilities.

Extraverted Thinking — objective decisions and structure.

ISTP

Introverted Thinking — objective decisions.

Extraverted Sensing — factual and practical observations.

ISFP

Introverted Feeling — interpersonally based decisions and structure.

Extraverted Sensing — factual and practical observations.

INFP

Introverted Feeling — interpersonally based decisions and structure.

Extraverted Intuition — possibilities and abstract observations.

INTP

Introverted Thinking — objective decisions.

Extraverted Intuition — possibilities and abstract observations.

ESTP

Extraverted Sensing — factual and detailed perceptions.

Introverted Thinking — objective decisions.

ESFP

Extraverted Sensing — factual and detailed perceptions.

Introverted Feeling — interpersonally based decisions.

ENFP

Extraverted Intuition — possibilities and abstract observations.

Introverted Feeling — interpersonally based decisions.

ENTP

Extraverted Intuition — possibilities and abstract observations.

Introverted Thinking — objective decisions.

ESTJ

Extraverted Thinking — objective decisions and structure.

Introverted Sensing — factual and practical.

ESFJ

Extraverted Feeling — interpersonally based decisions.

Introverted Sensing — factual and practical.

ENFJ

Extraverted Feeling — interpersonally based decisions.

Introverted Intuition — inspirations and possibilities.

ENTJ

Extraverted Thinking — objective decisions and structure.

Introverted Intuition — inspirations and possibilities.

Source: Kroeger, O., & Thuesen, J. M. (1988). Type talk: The 16 personality types that determine how we live, love, and work. New York, NY: Delta.

Meanwhile, David Keirsey’s Type Indicator theorizes that there are four basic temperaments: S-J, S-P, N-T and N-F (see Table 2).

Table 2: Keirsey’s Personality Temperaments

Temperament

Name

Description

S-P

Artisans

Greatest strength is tactics; they are the promoters, crafters, performers and composers.

S-J

Guardians

Greatest strength is logistics; they are the supervisors, inspectors, providers and protectors.

N-F

Idealists

Greatest strength is diplomacy; they are the teachers, counselors, champions and healers. 

N-T

Rationals

Greatest strength is strategy; they are the field marshals, masterminds, inventors and architects.

Source: www.keirsey.com.

While Isabel Briggs Myers and Katherine Cook Briggs focused more on how people think and feel, and about their self-assessed preferences, Keirsey focused on behavior, which is directly observable.

It wasn’t hard to spot the S-P’s and S-J’s in the room. They didn’t want to be there and didn’t want to participate in this “meaningless” activity.

According to the book Type Talk, understanding different types of temperaments can help us predict how people teach, learn and lead. As administrators and instructors of adult learners, we spend a lot of time talking about learning styles, and very little time considering personality types and temperaments when preparing lectures, other presentations and instructional methodologies.

I’m not maintaining that you must know the personality type or temperament of every student to be an effective teacher. But considering temperament as one prepares can make a big difference in successful information delivery. I believe it to be one of the most important differences among adult learners for which we can adjust.

While the honey bee’s waggle dance entertained me immensely and allowed me to think about leadership, communication and collaboration in a new way, it bored some of my colleagues, and caused the meeting to be a perceived waste of their precious time.

In technical education, it is imperative that we consider personality types and temperaments. Many, if not most, students who choose technical education do so because it is perceived to be more hands-on, practical and relevant than some other types of higher education.

While people like me thrive in traditional higher education, it is not the case for many who go to college not to learn for the sake of learning but rather to learn for the sake of doing. Because our mission in technical education is workforce development, I believe it is our responsibility to teach students in ways that will make them productive workers and lead to successful and meaningful careers.

Leaders & Innovators: Colleen L. Bielitz, dean, accelerated and professional studies, Becker College
8/19/2014 12:00 AM
Image of Colleen L. Bielitz.
Colleen L. Bielitz

Colleen L. Bielitz ended up in her current role as dean of accelerated and professional studies at Becker College when the institution’s president, with whom she had worked in a former role as a higher education consultant, asked her to assess Becker’s adult-oriented programs in light of declining enrollments.

She laid out a plan that included adding more bachelor’s degree programs, growing the college’s online offerings, breaking a semester-based academic year into trimesters, offering flexible accelerated terms, closing one facility just west of Boston, and focusing on the Worcester area, where the institution’s main campus is located. Becker’s president liked her ideas so much he asked her to join Becker to implement the plan.

Colleen L. BielitzColleen L. Bielitz ended up in her current role as dean of accelerated and professional studies at Becker College when the institution’s president, with whom she had worked in a former role as a higher education consultant, asked her to assess Becker’s adult-oriented programs in light of declining enrollments.

She laid out a plan that included adding more bachelor’s degree programs, growing the college’s online offerings, breaking a semester-based academic year into trimesters, offering flexible accelerated terms, closing one facility just west of Boston, and focusing on the Worcester area, where the institution’s main campus is located. Becker’s president liked her ideas so much he asked her to join Becker to implement the plan.

Bielitz has now been at the institution for nearly four years. In that time, she’s accomplished all of the things she initially set out to do, nearly tripling adult enrollments by adding bachelor’s degree programs, online offerings, and shorter, more flexible terms, plus focusing her efforts close to home.

She has also started creating short certificate programs for individuals who already have four-year degrees but want to upgrade their skills and résumés. She uses economic modeling software and works with local business leaders to determine exactly what skills employers are looking for to determine what those certificate programs should look like.

“I’m constantly evaluating and cycling our programs to meet the specific demands of our region, focusing on areas of high job growth right now and five to ten years out,” she said.

Bielitz emphasizes that she couldn’t have done all that without strong support from the president.

“Support for adult programs from the leadership is the most important thing you can have,” she said. “Unfortunately, a lot of institutions are still putting money into traditional programs even though that’s not where the enrollment growth is.”

If that’s the case at your institution, Bielitz, whose professional background includes experience in the business field and working at a for-profit institution, believes in approaching the problem from a financial perspective. She suggests showing campus leaders how other institutions have boosted enrollment — and their bottom lines — by focusing on adult learners.

Bielitz also believes institutions need to start thinking more like the airline industry, where “not everyone is paying the same price for a ticket and the goal is simply to make sure the plane is full,” she said. They can do that by looking at different types of financial aid matrixes and rethinking how scholarships and financial aid are awarded to adult learners. After all, adults tend to have complicated lives and myriad financial responsibilities.

And like Bielitz, many adult learners today have multiple careers over their lifetimes, she said. Turning them into lifelong learners can keep them coming back to your institution to sharpen existing skills and gain new ones as their professional lives evolve.

“The skills that suit you today may not be the same skills you need to be successful five years from now as you change positions and as the needs of your company change,” she tells students.

It’s a statement she takes to heart, by creating a flexible change model where she can easily adapt the institution’s adult-oriented offerings to meet the demands of the workforce and economy.

“We can’t afford to be rigid in our thinking, and we have to be willing to be lifelong learners ourselves,” she added.

That’s why Bielitz carries both Android and Apple phones, a Windows computer, and an iPad. Learning how multiple operating systems and formats work allows her to ensure her unit’s online offerings are device-agnostic so students have the same experience regardless of how they get on the Web.

“You can’t remain stagnant. You have to either adapt or perish. That applies both to individuals and to adult programs,” she said.

Technology has been helpful in another way. When Bielitz has trouble finding subject-matter experts to create and teach courses for which there’s demand, she turns to social media like LinkedIn.

For more information, you may contact Colleen Bielitz at colleen.bielitz@becker.edu.

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  • Meet the Editor

    Cynthia Gomez
    Managing Editor

    Cynthia Gomez became the editor of Recruiting & Retaining Adult Learners, formerly known as Nontraditional Students Report, in 2010. She has covered higher education for more than a decade, and has written and edited pamphlets and books for higher education audiences.
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