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.