BALTIMORE, MD. — Officials at many colleges and universities develop initiatives to make their institutions more attractive to adult learners and to help those students graduate once they enroll. But officials at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities realized they could serve adult students more effectively if they worked together to share strategies and best practices.

Marcia Anderson, advisor for student-directed learning at Metropolitan State University; Carol Lacey, a faculty member in the College of Individualized Studies at Metro; and Ginny Boyum, dean at Rochester Community and Technical College, explained initiatives officials at the multiple campuses worked on together at a session at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning annual international conference. They were all members of the Competency-Based Education and Credit for Prior Learning team of MNSCU’s Charting the Future Initiative.

The initiative’s work resulted in a statewide blueprint for empowering adult learners and partnerships between institutions, including one between Metro and RCTC.

“Adults come in maybe not being able to articulate competence but knowing they have some,” Anderson said. Getting credit for what they know is one of the top three things adult learners say they are looking for in a college or university, she added.

Strategies MNSCU officials used to scale up programs to recruit and retain adult learners included:

  • Accelerating competence-based learning. That started with encouraging faculty, staff and students to see the value of CBE, Boyum said. Many employees at businesses have many competencies but don’t have degrees.
  • MNSCU offered workshops for faculty members from all units, Boyum said. Officials provided stipends to professors for developing CBE curricula and assessments. With only a 3.8 percent unemployment rate in the area, faculty started to think about how creative ways of granting credit would attract students.

    Small grants helped faculty develop new pathways to award students with credit for competence. The efforts resulted in a 34 percent increase in awards for competence.

  • Engaging faculty to foster buy-in. Campus-based learning projects supported by grants or stipends gave faculty the knowledge they needed to support increased CBE, Boyum said. Officials identified and supported internal experts and campus champions who could provide leadership and momentum, she said.
  • Officials also provided training through organizations including CAEL to help faculty members apply research findings.

  • Marketing pathways viable for adult learners. Institutions developed individualized degree completion and accelerated curricular options, Lacey said. Metro has offered such programs since it was founded, and the individualized programs have the second-highest number of graduates of any program. Other institutions in the system are adopting practices developed at MSU.
  • Students enrolled in the individualized degree program have options for prior learning assessment and transferring in credits from other institutions. Granting those credits tells students, “What you did before is valuable,” she said. “It gives a sense of honor and respect to the students.”

    Officials also changed their approach to marketing. Many recruiters are young and recruit at high schools, Boyum said. Adult learners need someone who looks like them, and the language needs to be modified for recruitment pieces to appeal to adult learners. Important information on the website shouldn’t require too many clicks, and the language there should include terms prospective students will use to search. For example, they won’t search the term “PLA,” Boyum said.

  • Strengthening competence-based and prior learning assessment. Efforts extend to program and general education requirements.
  • In addition, officials are working to extend awareness of standardized tests such as CLEP, DSST and Excelsior and ACE evaluations.

    And they encourage faculty members to look for existing competencies. Those can be within courses, or faculty can waive courses or offer PLA credit.

  • Developing systemwide transfer policies and procedures. Efforts include:
    • Aligning certificates and associate and bachelor’s degree alternatives.
    • Expanding articulation agreements.
    • Working with registrars/student record systems regarding competence-based education and prior learning assessment transcripting and transfer.
    • Systematizing coding across the system.