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Retention
9/18/2014 12:00 AM
Photo of a member of the military carrying textbooks.
Military and veteran students need supports tailored to their lives. Credit: Sean Locke Photography/ Shutterstock.com.

As more veterans and active-duty military service members enroll in higher education, and particularly in distance learning programs, institutions across the country are under increasing pressure to rethink how they serve and support these growing student populations.

The Online Learning Consortium, formerly known as the Sloan Consortium, recently brought together expert panelists over a four-part webinar to share best practices for serving these students. If you’re looking for ways to make your institution more veteran- and military-friendly, their insights and advice could prove helpful.

Military and veteran students need supports tailored to their lives. Credit: Sean Locke Photography/Shutterstock.com.As more veterans and active-duty military service members enroll in higher education, and particularly in distance learning programs, institutions across the country are under increasing pressure to rethink how they serve and support these growing student populations.

The Online Learning Consortium, formerly known as the Sloan Consortium, recently brought together expert panelists over a four-part webinar to share best practices for serving these students. If you’re looking for ways to make your institution more veteran- and military-friendly, their insights and advice could prove helpful.

Following are our favorite tips and strategies shared by presenters.

1. Understand who your students are

You can’t provide effective support services to your veterans and military students and their families if you don’t first know who they are and what challenges they face. That’s according to Dawn Bilodeau, chief of Department of Defense Voluntary Education. She’s responsible for oversight and administration of adult, nontraditional, voluntary, continuing and postsecondary education programs for the DOD worldwide. She’s also the spouse of a veteran.

Military students are typically employed full-time, and unless they have a combat-acquired disability, that’s often the case for veterans as well. That means that they’re more likely to attend college on a part-time basis, taking on average three courses per year. Also, the majority complete their postsecondary education only after leaving the military, and after attending multiple institutions, she said.

However, Jorge Trevino, a lecturer and advisor at the Penn State World Campus and a Navy veteran, noted that even though students may have acquired disabilities as a result of their military service, they are not likely to see themselves as “disabled.” For that reason, getting them to self-disclose and seek out disability accommodations that can help them succeed may require a different approach, he said. Focusing on access rather than disability in conversations with such students can help.

Kathy Snead, the director of Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges, additionally noted that many military students and veteran students are also first-generation students. They may be entirely unfamiliar with everything they must do to enroll. She suggests creating a checklist and time line so they don’t miss any important steps or deadlines.

These students, like other adults, may also need an orientation to online learning, help with IT compatibility and access issues, and tutorial and remedial assistance.

2. Optimize prior learning assessment opportunities

Carol A. Berry, director of Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support — or DANTES — a Department of Defense program, believes institutions should put PLA opportunities front and center, since veterans and military students bring so much real-world expertise to the table.

She also noted that for military students, often in combat positions, attending class virtually and doing homework is difficult. “When studying in these conditions, you have to maximize your time,” she said. “PLA makes sense because at the end of the day, it’s about completing that degree.”

But institutions should go beyond prior learning assessment portfolios and College Level Examination Programs tests, and offer students additional ways of earning PLA credits, she said. For instance, end-of-course exams meant to assess everything students learned over the semester could be easily adapted for students who feel they have the knowledge covered in those courses.

Plus, students could complete massive open online courses or access other open educational resources on their own schedule and free of charge, then take those end-of-year exams through their institutions for credits, she suggested.

Institutions could additionally help students convert professional credentials and military training into college credits to help them make speedier progress toward their degrees, she noted. The new Joint Services Transcript for members of the Army, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Navy can facilitate that process, she said.

The JST provides evidence for postsecondary institutions of learning that has taken place through military training and occupational experiences. The DOD contracts with the American Council on Education to validate such experiences via its Military Evaluations Program, and issues credit recommendations.

3. Provide support services specific to veterans, military students

Like other adult learners, veterans and active-duty military students must juggle myriad competing responsibilities, but they also face some very unique challenges. Institutions should provide support services to address those specific challenges, noted Kelly Wilmeth, the associate vice president of stateside military support and partnerships for the University of Maryland University College. She suggested offering:

  • Dedicated advising teams designed to meet the needs of veterans, military students and their family members. Advisors should understand that both groups have different and unique needs and should be available 24/7 to accommodate students in different time zones and with odd schedules.
  • Integrated career and academic advising. Advisors should be able to sit down individually with students to figure out how their intended majors integrate into career opportunities and paths, she said.
  • Individualized degree mapping. Advisors shouldn’t help students only with major selection, but should also help them plan out their coursework so students understand what their academic life will look like as much as two or three years out.
  • Help transitioning from active-duty to civilian status. Institutions should “try to ensure a soft landing for them,” she said.
  • Front-line staff on military installations who can provide a full suite of student services. These should include application and registration assistance, academic advising, evaluation of military experience and other sources of transfer credits, and help understanding their tuition assistance benefits.
  • On-campus and virtual veterans resource centers. These should provide one-stop shopping for students, offering academic support, career advising, mentoring, information about educational benefits, and the chance to network with their peers.
  • Student groups. Student Veterans of America chapters provide student-veterans at institutions across the country support and advocacy. Reach out to your veterans and encourage them to create a local chapter.
  • VetSuccess on Campus program participation. Administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, this program aims to assist veterans and their dependents succeed in postsecondary education through the coordinated delivery of on-campus benefits assistance and counseling. Through the program, institutions can also have vocational rehabilitation counselors embedded on campus to provide on-site support.
  • A Veterans Certification Office. This unit should perform the critical function of explaining the benefits associated with each chapter of the GI Bill and serve as a liaison between student-veterans and the VA.
  • Veteran and military student orientations. These orientations should address issues specific to these student populations, plus connect students with advisors, faculty and others on campus who can provide assistance and support while students are enrolled.
Retention
9/18/2014 12:00 AM

While it’s critical that you have a clear understanding of the needs and challenges faced by military and veteran students, it’s just as important that the faculty members and advisors those students interact with regularly understand those things.

While it’s critical that you have a clear understanding of the needs and challenges faced by military and veteran students, it’s just as important that the faculty members and advisors those students interact with regularly understand those things.

For one, military students and veterans tend to have a “bulletproof mentality,” which can keep them from sharing their difficulties and asking for help, said David M. Acuff, a senior enlisted advisor at DANTES and online education alumnus. If those who deal with these students regularly know that, they’re more likely to be proactive about asking whether students are doing OK and referring them to helpful student services and resources, he noted.

Professors should also understand that sometimes, technology challenges related to deployment, such as unstable Internet connections, limited time for class engagement, and communication blackouts, can get in the way of students’ abilities to meet deadlines. And for students deployed in remote locations, access to academic resources can hinder their ability to produce research papers.

Flexibility is key to helping students dealing with those situations, he said. Plus, sometimes students aren’t allowed to disclose certain details of their situations due to the need for operational security, so instructors should know not to press.

Juliana Mercer, the California program manager for Hire America’s Heroes, and current distance learner, additionally explained that instructors and advisors should know who the key contacts are for student services units across the institution, so they can easily refer students to needed assistance.

“Military students may not want to ask for help, so sometimes it’s good for someone to come to us and point us to help and let us know exactly what’s available,” she said.

Meanwhile, Mark Ridley, an associate at Booz Allen Hamilton who has worked in higher education in various capacities, pointed to the need for professors to provide detailed syllabi so students can plan their work well ahead of time to accommodate possible deployment and other unexpected events.

And advisors should help students schedule related courses in sequences so that students don’t forget material from one course that can be helpful in the next, such as Algebra 1101 and 1102, he added.

Beyond just receiving syllabi early, students should also be given plenty of lead time to acquire required course materials, added Don Stumpf, the campus director of Columbia College - Fort Stewart. He recommends establishing partnerships with textbook vendors and leveraging e-resources to ensure that students can get the course materials they need in time, even when deployed in remote locations.

The Board Speaks
9/5/2014 12:00 AM

Every year more and more baby boomers retire from leadership positions in adult and continuing higher education, and a new crop of less seasoned professionals must step up to take their places. Recently, members of Recruiting & Retaining Adult Learners’ advisory board reflected on how the adult learning landscape has changed over time, and how something so firmly rooted in social justice grew into the fierce competition for adult learners of today.

If you’re a younger continuing education professional, their experiences and insights could prove valuable as you step up to the plate.

Every year more and more baby boomers retire from leadership positions in adult and continuing higher education, and a new crop of less seasoned professionals must step up to take their places. Recently, members of Recruiting & Retaining Adult Learners’ advisory board reflected on how the adult learning landscape has changed over time, and how something so firmly rooted in social justice grew into the fierce competition for adult learners of today.

If you’re a younger continuing education professional, their experiences and insights could prove valuable as you step up to the plate.

Q:John F. Azzaretto What has changed in how institutions approach adult and continuing education?

John F. Azzaretto: As my career progressed, higher education as a whole has become much more focused on serving adults. I remember those early days of correspondence and video courses. The emergence of technology has helped us deliver education in new, more effective ways to adult students who, for a variety of reasons, it was difficult in the past for us to serve.

At the same time, I think institutions have become better at acknowledging that adult learners come to college with many competing responsibilities and priorities.

Fred Garlett: Many of the people who are on our campuses now were not around in the early days when we had to justify the need for programs and services specifically for adult Fred Garlettstudents. But in not having a clear understanding of why we set this market apart, many folks miss some opportunities to serve adults well.

For many of us who have been here from the start, I think it’s very important to create discussion around the topic of why we do what we do. Providing people with an understanding of the “whys” behind our practices can help them develop a stronger commitment to this work of adult learning and to the students we serve.

Barbara Randazzo: Often when we attempt to do something, we’re told there’s a reason for things being the way they are and people put in a lot of thought and work to make them that way. Unfortunately, I think we live in a kind of world where everyone is just Barbara Randazzowork, work, work, and so the reasoning behind decisions that were made long ago can easily get brushed over.

But those discussions matter, because it’s not that we can’t change things; it’s just important to tread carefully, honoring what has happened in the past and why.

Alan Mandell: At Empire State College, there has always been a philosophical commitment to serving adults, and that has had to do with the concept of access and social justice. We are responding to people who, for a variety of reasons, are being excluded from higher education. But my sense is that some of those philosophical underpinnings and social commitments have fallen away at some institutions that turned to adults not because of any great embracing of a social justice cause, but out of a pragmatic need to increase enrollments.

For example, I recently attended an institute for faculty members who are new to prior learningAlan Mandell assessment. Many of those who were there were told to set up PLA programs at their institutions, not because of a belief that experiential learning should be taken seriously, but as a marketing strategy to attract more adults. But it’s easier to get buy-in for PLA when faculty members understand the reasons for offering it. Then, it becomes something they are doing for meaningful reasons, rather than just because it was imposed on them.

Q: Has adult teaching and learning changed in any ways worth noting?

Garlett: Most schools are under pressure to grow their adult programs, and that means finding new instructors to teach in those programs. But too often these days, what gets put aside when budgets are slim is faculty training and development. So how can we ensure adjuncts understand how adult students are different and what they bring to the table, which are essential to ensuring they receive a quality education?

It’s important not to fall into the trap of simply providing our instructors information about our policies and procedures, but rather find ways to do something constructive and developmental so that everything that we’ve learned about adult learning doesn’t fall to the wayside.

Mandell: It can help those part-time colleagues to grapple with the questions of why we do what we do, because it’s my sense that this kind of grappling affects what goes on in the classroom and adds a dimension of thoughtfulness and welcoming for the principles of adult learning.

Azzaretto: Many of our students are transfers who have had negative experiences somewhere else. They often tell me about how they feel valued and respected in our programs. Often, they decide to stay here for graduate work even if it’s more expensive than another school because of that. I think that’s a function of our helping instructors understand what we value about adult learners.

Randazzo: Our instructors are part-time affiliated faculty members, not adjuncts, and we develop them like crazy to ensure there’s a clear focus on the needs of adult learners. For instance, we do things like hold small group meetings for instructors who teach a particular course, and we challenge them to work together to improve that course and how it’s taught.

They are really the heart of what we do because they are in the professional world every day, so not only can they relate to our students, but they can offer students the kind of practice-based instruction they want.

Garlett: Another real challenge I see for tomorrow’s professionals relates to new delivery models. We can now create programs that allow us to reach students farther than ever. But how can we make sure that faculty members are able to address the needs of students they may never see face-to-face and form the kinds of connections that so greatly enrich teaching and learning?

Mandell: We have to encourage conversations around what is valuable about face-to-face teaching and learning and how we can bring those things into our classrooms when they are online. There are multiple ways to enhance online teaching and learning and avoid feelings of isolation, but for instructors to adopt those strategies, people have to get together to share their experiences and expertise.

Leaders & Innovators: Christina Trombley, director, Adult Degree Program, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay
10/30/2014 12:00 AM
Image of Christina Trombley.
Christina Trombley

After beginning a doctoral program in urban education with a focus on adult learning and continuing education at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Christina Trombley was hired to direct that institution’s Adult Degree Program. Had she not been in the program, she doubts she would have been seen as a strong candidate, despite all of her experience.

Those experiences make her a passionate advocate of continuing education. And as a doctoral student, she knows the myriad challenges students in her program face, and how to best help them succeed.

Christina TrombleyEach time Christina Trombley returned to college to further her education, new career opportunities opened up.

She began her career working in television and radio after receiving a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Then, after earning a master’s in business administration from UW-La Crosse, she landed at UW-Green Bay’s Small Business Development Center, where she helped create and provide noncredit education for business owners, managers and entrepreneurs.

And then, after beginning a doctoral program in urban education with a focus on adult learning and continuing education, she was hired to direct that institution’s Adult Degree Program. Had she not been in the program, she doubts she would have been seen as a strong candidate, despite all of her experience.

Those experiences make her a passionate advocate of continuing education. And as a doctoral student, she knows the myriad challenges students in her program face, and how to best help them succeed.

“Becoming a student again at this point in my life, I understand what it’s like for students to have the responsibility of school while also leading very busy and active lives. Not only do they usually work, but they also have family responsibilities,” she said. “I understand when our students say things like ‘Work just called me out of town and I have these assignments due but no Wi-Fi connection.’”

Understanding that such situations come up, Trombley makes sure instructors in her program understand adult learners’ need for flexibility, and that it’s possible to offer them that flexibility without giving up any academic rigor or accountability. At the same time, she also makes sure advisors help students understand that once they enroll, they need to give their education priority status, because “it can be easy for students to lose focus with everything else going on in their lives,” she said.

And when students in her program get discouraged, Trombley knows just how to get them back on track.

“I can help students see the impact that education can have on their lives, because I’ve lived that throughout my own career,” she said.

But Trombley, who has been in her current position for about two years now, is more than just a good cheerleader. She has applied her business acumen to the program, allowing it to run independently of state funds. She has also ramped up marketing efforts. Plus, as the higher education landscape changes, she has ensured her program remains relevant.

For example, the program was originally designed as a hybrid model that allowed students to attend classes on the weekends. But that was almost 30 years ago. As online programs became more popular, enrollments waned. Now, the program also offers two degrees completely online. And one of them targets students who graduate from two-year schools with associate of applied science degrees.

“It has required working with everyone to ensure rigor and accountability, while staying true to our mission, and at the same time applying sound business principles to what we do,” she said. “As all of higher education continues to fight for scarce resources and competition increases, we need to be doing that.”

Trombley recently unveiled a dashboard to help her department and campus leaders easily see enrollment trends and pain points so they can make better program decisions.

But Trombley is slow to take credit for herself, noting that all of those accomplishments have taken a team approach. In fact, one of her main leadership strategies involves empowering others to take ownership of projects.

When interdisciplinary teams identify problems and propose data-driven decisions, Trombley simply steps out of the way and lets them implement those decisions.

“They have to let me know if something costs money, but for the most part, whatever they decide I simply support, because they’ve done the heavy lifting and I want them to feel ownership for our program,” she said. “People are much happier in their positions when you give them that sort of responsibility.”

Prepare for the opportunities you want

Trombley, who has been in higher education for more than 17 years, is a big believer in taking on new projects as a way of gaining new skills and knowledge. She also thinks that sometimes it can really pay off to take a flying leap and try something new, even if you’re not sure how well it’s going to work. But what she credits most for her career success is education. Each time she wanted to take a major jump in her career, she went back to college to get the credentials needed to be viewed as a strong candidate.

That’s why the advice she gives students in her program is the same advice she gives staff members looking to advance in their own careers.

“Someone once said something that really stuck with me, that good luck is simply opportunity meeting preparation,” she said. “That’s absolutely true. If you want an opportunity, you have to prepare for it.”

For more information, you may contact Christina Trombley at tromblec@uwgb.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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