Chapter 7: Leveraging Our Assets: Adult Education as a Tool for Transformation
Posted on February 05, 2020Download as a PDF
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Having been engaged in K-12 and higher education leadership for over 40 years, I have personally experienced the significant changes in the higher education landscape in the past two decades in particular.
The urgency of shaping our colleges and universities to meet the needs of today’s learners has never been stronger. Effective leaders are constantly reviewing all of their institutional assets and liabilities as we seek to create innovative ways to attract and serve more students. For many of us in smaller private institutions, adult education programs have become a significant asset. However, it has been my experience that the discussion of the assets of adult programs often focuses primarily on revenue generation, not the potential contribution to serving students more effectively in our traditional undergraduate programs.
A Tale of Two Cities—Or at Least Two Governance Structures
For the most part, my higher education experience has been in smaller private colleges that began as seminaries and/or teacher preparation institutions, expanded to a more traditional liberal arts model in the mid-20th century, and added “adult learning” programs in the 1990’s or early 2000’s, often to strengthen their financial position. In each of these institutions, campus community members needed to be convinced that adult education would not “dilute the institutional mission” or draw resources from the more traditional four-year liberal arts programs. There were robust conversations about quality and course delivery for adult learners. Interestingly, this was accompanied by very little scrutiny of the effectiveness of the current undergraduate educational programs in serving contemporary learners’ needs. With the promise of additional revenue streams being invested in undergraduate programming at a time when resources were shrinking, faculty and other campus leaders eventually embraced this broader vision of institutional mission, although some concerns about “mission creep” still remain.
Many leaders at that time suggested that a complete separation between traditional four-year undergraduate and new adult learning program governance structures was necessary to ensure maximum flexibility and the ability to offer new applied programs to adult learners. This separation also encouraged alternative tuition structures, creative delivery models, and the use of many experienced community professionals in teaching classes to adults. In addition, it allowed institutions to show the positive revenue impact of these programs on the institution as a whole.
In many cases, parallel undergraduate degree programs were created in which adult learners would take similar classes to ones offered in traditional undergraduate programs in the same semester but separated either by teaching medium or time frame.
In many cases, parallel undergraduate degree programs were created in which adult learners would take similar classes to ones offered in traditional undergraduate programs in the same semester but separated either by teaching medium or time frame. Often, two cadres of faculty were created: full-time tenured faculty for whom research and teaching were both strong expectations but for whom experiential learning was classified as “service;” and part-time or adjunct faculty, for whom the connection between knowledge and hands-on experience was the world in which they lived all the time. A few educators crossed those lines and taught in both programs, but the roles were clearly delineated.
The Learner at the Center
At the same time as walls were being constructed between adult-centered educational programs and those offered in traditional four-year settings, our collective understanding of how students learn and effective pedagogies for a diverse set of learners grew exponentially. Effective adult learning programs learned very rapidly that it would serve them well to pay close attention to generational as well as intergenerational learning characteristics due to the need to recruit and retain learners of all ages. While many programs were designed for Baby Boomers, who still enjoy interactive classroom settings, adult learners today include the fiercely independent Generation X students, who prioritize self-directed educational opportunities on their own schedule; Millennials, who favor highly personalized learning, interaction with peers, and access to information on demand; and most recently, iGen or Generation Z students who are tech-talented, risk-averse, and have spent so much time interacting with others via electronic devices that they lack basic “people skills” [Generational Breakdown; Are You Ready]. The market-driven nature of adult learning has forced these programs to develop effective learning platforms and strategies to both acknowledge and cross these generational characteristics, resulting in innovative online and hybrid learning platforms, flexible formats and schedules, and extensive use of technology to promote electronic interaction among learners.
Effective adult learning programs learned very rapidly that it would serve them well to pay close attention to generational as well as intergenerational learning characteristics due to the need to recruit and retain learners of all ages.
Traditional undergraduate programs, however, have been slower to adopt variation in their approaches to teaching and learning even though learner characteristics have clearly changed over time. The ability to interact with students face to face on a regular basis, the depth and breadth of subject matter expertise, and the opportunity and commitment to impact students developmentally over time in small residential institutions provides a unique setting in which powerful pedagogical approaches based on learner characteristics could be implemented very effectively. While there are certainly many individual faculty members engaging in innovative practice in undergraduate residential institutions, stronger connections with adult learning programs could provide some interesting models of instruction that could benefit learners in these undergraduate programs. The intersection among programs could also provide new ways of thinking about teaching and learning in adult learning programs.
Connecting the Classroom and the Context
While there are clearly differences among learners who choose to participate in four-year highly residential institutions and those who choose more flexible adult learning paths, the similarities among their goals and expectations are growing, particularly in institutions in which a significant portion of the students are first in their family to attend college and/or who are attending college at a significant financial sacrifice. Many students in traditional undergraduate institutions work extensive hours and are balancing family and other outside responsibilities [McGuire]. They and their families expect direct preparation for future employment opportunities, including regular opportunities for hands-on experiences and real data that shows employment success [Karbhari]. They are constantly weighing the value of higher education in the midst of many questioning voices and expect to be shown the true impact of every experience.
Institutions have taken on the challenge of showing the value of a broad-based multi-disciplinary core, intensive academic specialization, and a 24/7 learning experience in a variety of ways, including creating Signature Programs [Marcy], promising internships and other high-impact experiences to all students, reframing or adding majors that specifically address new societal and economic needs, and carefully articulating success in preparing students for employment, service, and further education. As these programs are developed, the conversation has included a focus on connecting students with community resources, engaging community experts in shaping educational programs, and designing innovative ways to connect with alumni. In addition, experiential learning is now considered a pedagogical strategy that should be integrated into every academic program. It is also joining teaching and scholarship as an appropriate and necessary part of faculty load. Entire centers are being set up to support and facilitate experiential learning, including on my own campus.
Experiential learning is now considered a pedagogical strategy that should be integrated into every academic program.
However, those institutions with adult learning programs already have a source of educational expertise affiliated with their campuses who could provide some excellent connections with the community and hands-on experiences—the faculty, administrators, and students in adult learning programs. In addition, many lessons could be learned from the ways in which adult learning programs communicate the educational and economic value of their particular programs.
The Walls Come Tumbling Down
When all of those involved in a higher education institution recognize that adult learning programs are a multi-faceted asset and adopt an attitude of deep respect for the intentions and impact of their fellow educators, whether they work in adult learning or residential “day” programs, many exciting opportunities emerge. Programs that allow a seamless progression from undergraduate to graduate degrees are created. Credential programs are developed that allow undergraduate students to develop workforce specializations while experiencing the robust benefits of a full-time residential undergraduate program. Adults in degree completion programs can share their life and work experiences with students who are just starting down their career path when opportunities are created to cross those program boundaries.
As noted above, faculty, staff, and students from adult learning programs can help the institution make excellent connections with community resources and can provide valuable expertise to program advisory groups and university committees. Faculty, staff, and students from traditional day programs can connect the community with campus resources. Making the rich cultural and educational experiences on campus accessible to adult learners through creative scheduling or electronic communication tools can strengthen the adult learning experience. In addition, opportunities to engage in collaborative applied research often emerge. These connections will benefit all programs and make the value of the undergraduate and adult educational experiences even more evident to current and future students.
Faculty, staff, and students from adult learning programs can help the institution make excellent connections with community resources.
In addition, creating faculty roles that bridge the two types of programs and providing opportunities to bring faculty and staff from the programs to learn together can lead to more effective pedagogy in all areas. Providing opportunities for faculty from undergraduate and adult learning programs to study learner characteristics and innovative pedagogy together could not only transform practice but build trust across these different worlds. Again, creative use of electronic communication can make this more feasible for people who have very different schedules and life commitments. Leveraging All of Our Assets Differences still remain between traditional four-year undergraduate and adult learning programming as they co-exist in the same institutions, and separate governance, financial, personnel, and scheduling structures may best suit the needs of these programs. However, the advantages of crossing the programming and pedagogical divide in order to better serve all students are compelling. It is time to celebrate the expansion of our missions to include adult learners and to look for every opportunity to learn from one another for the good of the whole. In times like these, every asset must be leveraged to serve all of our students innovatively and effectively.
 Throughout this chapter, I reference traditional models of education, not “traditional” or “non-traditional” students. As President McGuire pointed out in her chapter in the 2018-19 President2President series, fewer and fewer students fit definitions of traditional and non-traditional learners.
“Are You Ready to Support 4 Generations of Learners?”Panopto, panopto.com/blog/are-you-ready-to-support-4-generations-of-learners. Accessed 22 July 2019.
“Generational Breakdown: Info About All of the Generations.”The Center for Generational Kinetics, genhq.com/faq-info-about-generations. Accessed 22 July 2019.
Karbhari, Vistap M. “Chapter 9: From Academic Preparation, through Skills Development, to the Knowledge Continuum.” President2President, 2018-2019, president2president.com/library/2018-2019_ch9.
Marcy, Mary B. “The Small College Imperative: From Survival to Transformation.” AGB White Paper, May 2017, agb.org/sites/default/files/whitepaper_2017_small_college_imperative.pdf.
McGuire, Patricia. “Chapter 3: Where Have All the ‘College Kids’ Gone? The Changing Face of the Collegiate Student Body.” President2President, 2018-2019, president2president.com/library/2018-2019_ch3.