BALTIMORE — Access to higher education for adult learners has improved dramatically in past years, said Marguerite Weber, vice president for adult and professional programs at Cabrini College. But are programs for adult learners as focused on quality as those for traditional-aged students? “We’ve come a long way in assessing for quality, but do we always make it the highest priority?” she asked.

“Your adult learners are already getting a bad deal,” Weber said. Traditional-aged students will have 50 to 60 years to get a return on their investment. Students who are 50 years old when they graduate won’t have nearly as long. “Their experiences have to be transformative,” she said.

Weber explained how she incorporated the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Liberal Education and America’s Promise initiative into the adult programs at Cabrini, speaking in a presentation at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning annual conference.

LEAP defines high-impact practices that enhance education. High-impact practices include:

  • Learning communities.
  • Collaborative projects.
  • Diversity/global learning.
  • Internships.
  • Service-/community-based learning.
  • Capstones.

These practices are associated with outcomes including:

  • Deep learning.
  • Self-reported gains in general, personal and practical knowledge.
  • Increased perceptions of the level of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, and the quality of the supportive environment.
  • Stronger intent to persist.

But many adult learners don’t have access to these experiences, Weber said. Some high-impact practices need to be modified to work in adult programs, she added. Barriers to accessing those practices, as they are often offered, include:

  • Balancing school, work, community and family responsibilities.
  • Lacking out-of-class time on campus. That’s especially true for part-time learners.
  • Encountering financial barriers, especially for low-income learners. “How could I ever study abroad?” adult learners might ask.
  • Lacking knowledge of the benefits of an intentional cocurriculum. Many students, especially those who are first-generation, equate college learning with credit accumulation.
  • Lacking continuity because of transfers. Swirling students may not be pursuing studies where they had their first-year experience, so students in a program do not all have the same foundation.
  • Finding that the gains associated with high-impact practices don’t have much resonance. Those practices may be incorporated in the curriculum in ways designed to enhance the cognitive development levels of students aged 18–22.
  • Perceiving that the rich life experiences of adult learners may not be acknowledged or valued.

But adapted high-impact practices can be very effective for adult learners, Weber said. Among other benefits, they can challenge students’ assumptions about themselves. Many of these students lack confidence in their ability to succeed in college. “The goal is they start to reimagine themselves,” Weber said.

Cabrini programs adapt practices

When Weber looked for ways to adapt high-impact practices to Cabrini’s adult programs, she started with the college’s mission: “Help students live lives of dignity and recognize responsibility to others.” The adapted practices she developed that support that mission are:

  • Adapted blended learning, also called “access pedagogy.” Students take intentionally paired courses. They take three courses per semester; one is a 15-week course, and the other two are seven-and-a-half-week courses. The faculty members for the courses work together, and the courses are taught online.
  • Plus, students meet in person for three hours once a week with a learning mentor. “The face-to-face time doesn’t substitute for class time. It substitutes for homework,” Weber said. “Adults need direction because they may not know how to study.” The meeting time includes activities that work for both the courses the student is taking.

    Overall, the courses are designed so that students spend 39.5 hours on directed learning, 39.5 hours on self-directed learning, 39.5 hours on demonstrating learning, and 2.5 hours on testing. Most of the demonstrating learning occurs in the face-to-face sessions, Weber said.

  • Divergent thinking. “Divergent thinking is the process of discovering multiple resolutions of a paradox,” Weber said. Students are encouraged to bring their life experiences to their problem-solving. For example, a course on food crises and food deserts will be paired with a business class. Assignments in the business class will ask students to design an entrepreneurial approach to addressing a food crisis.
  • Goals of divergent thinking include encouraging students to:

    • Reflect on the limits of individual knowing through valuing a wider world of diverse perspectives.
    • Employ effective help-seeking behaviors and efficient use of resources.
    • Practice critical thinking by engaging in big questions that arise from discovering a world of difference.
    • Develop habits for self-reflection and critical analysis by learning that more good solutions can be discovered.
    • Enhance perceptions of the value of academic challenge.
    • Practice risk-taking, productive failure and recovery.
  • Future-focused approach to prior learning assessment. Cabrini will use the Learning Counts system, but the adult program is new, so no students have been ready to use it yet, Weber said. Once officials get the report back, they will create a just-in-time learning contract to address gaps in what students need.
  • Students will complete reflections, not just on what they learned, but also on how they acquired the knowledge and how it increased their mastery levels.

    The prior learning assessments, reflections and contracts form the basis of matching students for internships and externships where they can gain the knowledge they need. All students complete one or two semester internships or externships. Externships enable them to shadow leaders who have the skills the students are working on.

  • Service learning/servant leadership. “Cabrini was one of the first colleges to require service learning for all students. We’re very proud of that,” Weber said.
  • Adult learners participate in service learning through a required upper-division general education course, Engagement in the Common Good. Students focusing on leadership lead projects that involve traditional undergraduates in service learning.

  • Personal branding capstone. The adult program includes four experiences that build on one another to promote the learning outcomes associated with student-faculty research:
    1. Students explore their academic interests and build a degree-completion plan that includes out-of-class activities that add value to the degree program. They do this during the winter term of their first year.
    2. Students start a learning portfolio to earn alternative credits and explore college-to-career connections. The goals are to help them determine what areas of academic focus are the best fit, what career connects to those passions, and what are the best approaches to preparing for their career.
    3. Students start their internship/externship experience. They engage in workshops and activities that help them build a personal brand, develop a network for career support, and build a personal mentoring system.
    4. Students examine the importance of building a personal brand. They clarify their skill sets, values and aspirations. They practice presentation, interviewing, networking and social-media skills. And they think about involvement in targeted professional associations.

Learn more about LEAP at

Use these best practices to develop adapted high-impact practices

The following best practices will help you develop and implement adapted high-impact practices for your adult programs:

  • Make a clear commitment to ensuring consistency in the quality of student learning experiences across all of the types of students served by the institution, including older, part-time and commuter students.
  • Reverse-engineering your curricula, starting with outcomes that matter for deep learning, broad learning and personal learning.
  • Eliminate barriers to participation and enhance commitment to completion.