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Trends/Administration
4/6/2015 12:00 AM

Higher education is evolving rapidly in myriad ways. Its evolution is being fueled in part by changing mindsets, workforce and business needs, advances in technology, and shifting demographics.

For adult learners, this evolution has often meant increased opportunity, access and flexibility in attaining the credentials they need to create financial security for themselves and their families. For instance, credentialing of prior learning, long on the fringes of higher education, is increasingly recognized as a core component of adult-serving programs. Meanwhile, a new push toward assessing competencies rather than classroom learning has placed into focus the need to link education to jobs.

Higher education is evolving rapidly in myriad ways. Its evolution is being fueled in part by changing mindsets, workforce and business needs, advances in technology, and shifting demographics.

For adult learners, this evolution has often meant increased opportunity, access and flexibility in attaining the credentials they need to create financial security for themselves and their families. For instance, credentialing of prior learning, long on the fringes of higher education, is increasingly recognized as a core component of adult-serving programs. Meanwhile, a new push toward assessing competencies rather than classroom learning has placed into focus the need to link education to jobs.

But is something important and worthwhile being lost along the way? Are you willing to examine your programs and institution as energetically as you offer to help adult learners?

Those are just two of the key questions that Alan Mandell and Lee Herman asked attendees of the last Council for Adult and Experiential Learning conference in Chicago to consider during their session on the credentialing movement.

Mandell, who serves on Recruiting & Retaining Adult Learners’ advisory board, is a professor of adult learning and mentoring at Empire State College. Herman is a professor and mentor to students in the cultural studies and social science areas of study at the institution.

As CAEL celebrated its 40th anniversary, Mandell noted that many institutions have now been serving adult learners for a similar or greater number of years. While such institutions have certainly come a long way in recognizing the value adults bring to the classroom and in adapting to better serve them, they must not only celebrate their successes, but also step back and reflect, he said.

“There is currently spectacular criticism of the academy, and it’s grown because of the money involved and because students and legislators are asking, ‘What is being gained from a college education?’ The research is dicey on this; the difference in what students knew starting out and what they knew upon completion of a program is not so great. So we’re really on the defensive,” Mandell said.

With criticism coming from so many directions, it may be tempting to focus on staying ahead of the curve. But just as revolutions of all kinds have a history of losing sight of and betraying their core principles, higher education’s rapid and ongoing transformation comes with that risk, they noted.

Some questions they asked their audience to consider, and which your programs may benefit from with your own consideration, include:

  • When does helping become selling? Given the rising cost of college and the continuing competition for a limited number of well-paying jobs, are you merely asking students to purchase something they may not be able to pay back later on? Or does the value of what you’re offering go beyond simply giving students the ability to find employment?
  • When does mobilizing become co-opting? As institutions increasingly recognize the need to appeal to adults, they must consider not only what adults need from them, but also how they go about meeting those needs. For instance, adults’ motivations for enrolling in college are often job-driven, but programs that offer career-focused education should also incorporate the kind of broad-based learning and critical thinking skills that can help students not just in the short term, but for their entire careers.
  • When does recognition become exclusion? In the process of adapting to meet the recognized needs of your adult learners, the local workforce and the business community, are you inadvertently excluding certain individuals from your institution’s programs and services? For instance, do prior learning and competency-based assessments exclude those who don’t write well simply because they are essay-based?
  • When does revolution become reaction? Consider whether the changes being embraced at your institution are happening for the right reasons, or whether they are merely reactions to what competitors are doing or what may be trending in higher education today. You should be doing things for the right reasons, not merely for profit-driven reasons.

Recognizing where tensions and potential ethical dilemmas exist is critical to ensuring that as institutions move forward, sometimes at lightning speed, they are responding to changes in the higher education landscape without losing sight of the principles and ideals that truly matter and without unintentionally hurting the very students you aim to help, Mandell and Herman explained.

“This sort of introspection is ultimately about how we put forth the value added to what we do — that we are able to defend it, so that our students will not say, ‘There’s no reason to do this,’” Mandell said. “We must think about how we situate ourselves within the current environment to say that what we’re offering is not just a fast track to a job, but has some value unto itself. What are the arguments for that? If we can think critically about what we’re doing to figure that out, what we end up with is something that will be very attractive to people.”

For more information, you may contact Alan Mandell at alan.mandell@esc.edu and Lee Herman at lee.herman@esc.edu.

The Board Speaks
3/9/2015 12:00 AM

With more options for older students in how, where and even when to attain the credentials they need, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for many adult-serving institutions and programs to maintain their enrollments. But there are other factors impacting adult-learner enrollments too. For instance, high unemployment rates have historically resulted in college enrollment booms, but unemployment rates have been falling as the economy continues to slowly improve.

Members of Recruiting & Retaining Adult Learners’ advisory board recently discussed these trends, plus how institutions and programs geared toward adult learners can remain competitive. Their insights could prove valuable if you’re seeing your adult-student population shrink.

With more options for older students in how, where and even when to attain the credentials they need, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for many adult-serving institutions and programs to maintain their enrollments. But there are other factors impacting adult-learner enrollments too. For instance, high unemployment rates have historically resulted in college enrollment booms, but unemployment rates have been falling as the economy continues to slowly improve.

Members of Recruiting & Retaining Adult Learners’ advisory board recently discussed these trends, plus how institutions and programs geared toward adult learners can remain competitive. Their insights could prove valuable if you’re seeing your adult-student population shrink.

Q: What external forces do you feel are impacting your adult-student enrollments most?

Karen Heikel: We see the number of adults enrolling in college decreasing, partly because of the improvement in unemployment rates. When employment opportunities are good, people will focus on working. And in our area, a number of competitors have entered the adult-learner market. It’s not even just the for-profits anymore, but also other state schools, some of which are just 45 miles down the road. The combination of those things has really made things more difficult for us.

John F. Azzaretto: One thing I see happening is that more people are going after industry-specific certifications and not necessarily degree programs. Those certifications may be a requirement in some cases, and in others just a good ticket to get punched. Because they’re less expensive and take less time than a college degree, it can be hard to compete with that.

Louis deSalle: We’re not seeing the population of potential students decreasing so much as it is dispersing because there are so many competitors and so many options for adult learners today. Twenty years ago, we were the only show or one of several shows in town. Today, because students have so many choices, many of those who might have come to us in the past are now choosing other places.

The media presentation of higher education has also led to an increase in the number of regulations and oversight, making it more difficult for us to innovate. For example, if we want to change or add programs, there are now more hurdles than ever to jump.

Barbara Randazzo: The media has been hard on us these last couple of years. The impact and value of college degrees are constantly being questioned. And then there are all the new, competency-based programs cropping up at institutions like Southern New Hampshire University and Northern Arizona University. I don’t know if that’s impacting enrollments here yet, but I wonder about it because of the amount of visibility they get.

Alan Mandell: This seems like this is a “best of times, worst of times” moment for us. A speaker at the last Council for Adult and Experiential Learning conference mentioned that something like two-thirds of all college students in the U.S. could be defined as adults. That’s a sign of our spectacular success as a social movement. But retention rates for adults are still rather poor. So we have to ask ourselves, “What does it mean to get better? What are the services and supports that students need to succeed in our institutions?” And, of course, at the same time, this is a hard thing to consider when so many budgets are being cut. We seem to need more with less.

Q: What strategies, if any, do you feel can help you push back against these forces resulting in fewer adult learners?

Randazzo: We’ve managed our tuition for many years to remain competitive, but we must be careful not to go too far. While we don’t want to charge too much, we also don’t want to send the message that our programs are worth little, because we don’t believe that.

We’re now considering affinity pricing for strategic partners, such as local chambers of commerce and community colleges. We’re also looking at ways to get enhanced access to prospective students, such as through employers, where they get something in exchange for providing us that direct connection to individuals who could benefit from our programs.

deSalle: The marketing piece is very difficult because there’s such market saturation out there. We’ve always relied on word-of-mouth. It’s been our primary way of attracting students, because current students bring in their spouses, children and even parents. We’ve found that to make sure we can rely on word-of-mouth marketing, students’ experiences here must be good ones.

Mandell: I have what is perhaps a naïve and romantic view of this. We will get smooshed over time if what we provide is not of good quality. Students recognize whether they are being well-served, and if their personal, academic and professional needs are being responded to in the learning opportunities we develop and offer. And whether relying on word-of-mouth or some other way of marketing, I think quality typically wins out.

I also find it fascinating that talk around the notion of personalized education, and that word — “personalized” — has begun to emerge not just here at my college but all over. Just as they did in the 1970s, institutions are again realizing that students are looking for flexible arrangements that respond to their learning needs. But the less we know about our students — and I think this happens with increasing numbers, with new efficiencies and additional regulations — the harder it is for us to figure out what those needs may be.

We must find out what our students know, what they care about, what questions they have, what their goals are, and what kinds of things would challenge them. Then we need to ask, “To what extent do our programs offer students real possibilities to ask their own questions and be guided by faculty and other professionals who take their interests and their worries seriously?”

Adult Learning
2/18/2015 12:00 AM

As colleges see their adult-student enrollments grow, it’s imperative that those tasked with serving this population have a deep understanding of adults’ learning needs. Fortunately, decades of research into adult learning provide some key strategies for serving adults.

As colleges see their adult-student enrollments grow, it’s imperative that those tasked with serving this population have a deep understanding of adults’ learning needs. Fortunately, decades of research into adult learning provide some key strategies for serving adults.

Roger Hiemstra, author of Lifelong Learning: An Exploration of Adult and Continuing Education Within a Setting of Lifelong Learning Needs and Taking Responsibility for Personal Learning, explains that continuing education is more important than ever because: (1) change is rapid and constant, and affects everyone in various ways, causing an increased need for learning; (2) occupational obsolescence occurs as new developments, techniques and/or knowledge evolve and individuals become less competent; and (3) changes in lifestyles have created a desire for self-actualization and to lead an enriched life.

Understanding those drivers can help us develop programs and courses that meet the needs of those we serve. We should ask, “What is changing and what skills do our adult learners need to cope with these changes?”

In The Adult’s Learning Projects: A Fresh Approach to Theory and Practice in Adult Learning, Allen Tough noted that most people regularly engage in learning efforts. Our continuing education offerings should focus on tapping into adults’ natural desire to learn.

Tough defined a “learning project” as a deliberate attempt by an individual to gain a certain knowledge and skill or to create a change in their behavior. Tough identified 40 key details that learners address when undertaking a learning project, including what skill or knowledge to learn; what resources, methods and activities to use; when and where to learn; the pace of learning; and the current skill level of the learner.

Course and program creation should consider the learners’ perspective. Specifically, ask yourself:

  • What skills do the learners want?
  • How can we create a learning environment that meets the learners’ needs with regard to time, location and pace?
  • How will the learners know they are being successful?

Further, offerings for adults should take into account their need for self-directedness. In Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers, Malcolm Knowles defined “self-directed learning” as the act of taking the initiative, with or without the help of others, to diagnose your own learning needs, formulate learning goals, identify appropriate learning resources, choose and implement learning strategies, and evaluate outcomes.

Self-directed learning is often motivated by the desire to put new knowledge to practical use. Those factors mean that lecture-based courses aren’t likely to get and keep the attention of adult learners.

Rather, instructors in adult-oriented programs should adopt a facilitating approach that puts students at the center of the learning process, recognizing not only that adults like to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to learning, but also that adults are well-equipped to direct their own learning, given that they come with a vast number of skills and knowledge.

That approach has been effective for McLennan College’s corporate training unit. The department often attracts students who are seen as leaders of their respective organizations. Despite that, some may be initially reluctant to be in class. They may have had bad experiences in prior classroom settings. Putting them in charge of their own learning, recognizing everything they bring to the table, and engaging them with content that is relevant to their daily work helps them overcome that reluctance. Speaking to students early on to set clearly defined expectations and agree on learning objectives sets the stage for successful participation.

In addition, it’s essential that courses teach them what they feel they need to learn — not what you think is important for them to learn. Partnerships with quality online education providers have proven to be a useful option. Co-hosting conferences, seminars or trainings in partnerships with other organizations that can deliver the content your adult learners need or help you make learning more accessible is another option.

McLennan College’s continuing education department recently hosted an “Appy Hour” course at a local wine bar. “Appy Hour” provided seniors an opportunity to bring in their smartphones and receive guidance on the functions and applications available on their devices. While many of the participants were highly accomplished individuals, rapid developments in technology meant that many felt increasingly uncomfortable fully using the features of their phones. The idea of learning over a glass of wine or tea reduced the intimidation factor. Instructors served as facilitators, ensuring that participants took away from the experience the skills and knowledge they wanted.

Leaders & Innovators: Paul Kyle, dean of student services and success, Johnson County Community College
3/23/2015 12:00 AM

At one time, officials at Johnson County Community College, which enrolls many adult learners, could take an “If we build it, they will come” approach to recruitment. In fact, the college didn’t have a recruiter until 2007, said Paul Kyle, the dean of student services and success. But officials realized recruiting was necessary. And they needed to do a better job retaining students.

At one time, officials at Johnson County Community College, which enrolls many adult learners, could take an “If we build it, they will come” approach to recruitment. In fact, the college didn’t have a recruiter until 2007, said Paul Kyle, the dean of student services and success. But officials realized recruiting was necessary. And they needed to do a better job retaining students.

Now Kyle and officials from across the institution are creating a strategic plan that integrates enrollment and academic goals. Officials on the academic and services side realized they had to work together.

“You do your thing and we’ll do our thing and hope it works out” wasn’t an effective approach, Kyle said.

The strategic planning initiative requires culture change to get units to collaborate — both to create the plan and to pursue cross-division efforts to achieve goals.

Kyle heads the enrollment team for the strategic planning process. His team includes officials from academics, curriculum, marketing and other units. The enrollment team is focusing on a comprehensive recruitment plan, and the academic team is looking at ways to boost retention. But they realize those go hand in hand, Kyle said. Officials on all the committees focus on the question “How does it impact students?”

“It’s not about us, what is convenient for us in terms of what we offer. It’s about maintaining the quality of education,” Kyle said.

JCCC’s planning and culture change initiatives are driven in part by hard economic facts. Students are asking “What’s in it for me?” Kyle said. Officials need to do a better job of helping them to see how college will help them and their families down the road.

And officials also need to do a better job interacting with students early on — thinking in terms of retaining students while they are still prospects.

Kyle and his colleagues are determining what they can do to prepare students before they get to the classroom and to help them understand the institutional culture before their first day of school. When students drop out, 80 percent of the time the cause is not in the classroom, Kyle said.

To retain students, officials must first convince them that they are capable of going to college and that they have the assets to succeed. Students ask, “Do people like me go here?” If they aren’t clear that the answer is yes, one little thing can cause them to falter, Kyle said.

To improve prospective students’ first interactions with the college, Kyle is creating purposeful activities that engage them. Research shows that if a student connects with another student, a faculty member and a staff member, the college has a 44 percent better chance of retaining him.

So when prospects visit JCCC, officials try to help them make those connections. Visitors are given brightly colored backpacks to wear around campus. Faculty and staff members are encouraged to say hello to anyone they see wearing those backpacks.

Admissions staff members also guide visitors to areas where they will meet a staff member, a faculty member and a student. If all three of those people say the same thing, one might say it in a way that the prospective student hears best, Kyle said.

“It’s relational,” Kyle said about recruiting and retaining students. “That’s not always easy.”

Also, when prospective students visit the success center, an advocate sits down to speak with them. Some adults might not want to go on the typical campus tour. The advocate will help the student begin to design a plan, Kyle said. Or if an orientation is about to start, the advocate will invite the student to participate. And before the prospect leaves, the advocate will help him plan his next step for enrolling.

Help students adjust to institution culture

If adult learners can cross the gap from their culture of origin to the culture of the institution, they have better chances of success in college, Kyle said. There are two questions they need to be able to answer to make the transition:

  • Do people like me go here? “If they can’t answer that, they probably won’t come or stay,” Kyle said. If they enroll, they will look for reasons why they shouldn’t be in college after all.
  • Do I have the assets to succeed? Many adults juggle school with work, and must get children to school every morning. “If you can do that, you can do everything,” Kyle said. But the students might not have realized how they can apply their skills to going to class and studying.
  • They also need to understand that college officials aren’t asking them to leave their families behind, he said.

For more information, you may contact Paul Kyle at pkyle@jccc.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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