Adapt to Survive: Reforming Higher Ed to Meet the Needs of Adult Learners

Adapt to Survive: Reforming Higher Ed to Meet the Needs of Adult Learners

By Marcia Daniel on Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Stop three people on the street and ask them to describe their idea of a typical college student, and you’ll likely get three versions of the same answer: young twenty-something, toting a backpack on campus, still trying to decide what to do with the rest of his or her life.

These students make up a sizeable chunk of the average campus population. But there’s another group of students who don’t receive anywhere near the same attention — people like Shawn Jaracz, a former military man, who took 26 years to finish his bachelor’s degree; and Angeline Williams, a working mother of two, who went back to college to pursue her nursing degree after working as a scrub technician.

These learners are considered nontraditional students, and, as a new documentary points out, their success likely hinges on the ability of our institutions to boost completion (the U.S. now ranks 16th in the world).

But there’s a problem: Many colleges and universities aren’t set up to serve the unique challenges adult learners face, whether it’s juggling employment with continuing education, managing child care and other family responsibilities or reentering the civilian workforce after active-duty service in the U.S. military.

“Traditional higher education has said, ‘This isn’t my job. We’re at capacity. We are serving all the students we can. We’re trying to bring our costs down, and going out and pursuing brand new markets isn’t the way for us to do that,’” explains John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College, which focuses on serving the needs of adult learners.

While those excuses might have worked in years past, experts say the push for degree completion—President Obama and other stakeholders have challenged the nation’s colleges and universities to double the number of degree completers by 2020—makes it impossible to continue to operate in this way.

“We tend to think about higher education in the country as more of a linear path, and we need to start thinking of it more as a checkerboard, where you sort of jump in and out, and you get what you need, and you progress through your education that way,” suggests Andrew Kelly, director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute.

And maybe that’s just the kind of spark our higher education system needs.

“We have for years said, ‘We have the best higher education system in the world—we are the envy of the world—and that may in fact be true for the limited population of people,” says Cheryl Oldman, vice president of the education and workforce program of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. “But is that good enough for tomorrow?”

Want to learn more about the challenges faced by adult learners and what institutions can do to meet the needs of these students? Watch the documentary for ideas about credit transfer, online learning, competency-based education and more. And don’t be afraid to think outside the box.

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