In October 2011, Lumina Foundation and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) convened a meeting focused on how to transform higher education to serve adult learners most effectively in the 21st century. A diverse group of postsecondary leaders, accreditors, employers, policy makers, and adult learning advocates worked together to outline priorities for ensuring adult academic and career success in a time of resource constraints in higher education. This action-oriented convening started with questions related to serving adult learners better and progressed to a discussion of specific steps needed in order to respond to the challenges of a new age.
In early conversations, nearly twenty important themes emerged, with a long list of supporting ideas, actions, and recommendations. The group then evaluated and prioritized these themes. Eight emerged as most important. The group then identified the foundation for a new action plan: the creation of a National Learning Recognition Agenda.
The Eight Top Priorities for Transforming Institutions to Serve Adult Learners
- Provide help for adults in navigating education and career information. Adults who are moving back into higher education or trying to access higher education for the first time need a reliable “navigation” service to help them choose the right programs to meet their goals, find career pathways, finance their education and training, and connect them to appropriate institutions.
- Launch a national marketing and communications campaign to enable adults who believe they are not “college material” to see themselves in new ways, to break down the stigma attached to going to school as an adult, to have their knowledge and experience valued, and to identify career pathways.
- Recognize learning outcomes (vs. seat time), as well as the assessment and validation of all types of learning. Credit hour/seat time does not take into account the multitude of learning opportunities now available to mobile and other nontraditional learners. A learning outcomes framework is appropriate for both.
- Conduct more research – and establish a better understanding of what we know already. The group identified additional research needs, including IPEDS data collection adapted to adult learners, state and national policy audits, adult learner perspectives, the value of a college degree or credential, and adult financial aid needs. The group noted that there has been a profusion of special research reports, program evaluations, and impact studies related to adult learner success and degree completion. Yet, there has been no effort to summarize and consolidate the research and findings in a central location or reference resource.
- Focus on financial aid and institutional financing. This theme cut across multiple topics. First, current federal financial aid policy and some state aid programs need to address adult learner needs. In fact, some participants thought there should be a separate financial aid program for adults and independent students. Second, funding incentives should be provided to colleges and universities to ensure they are meeting adult learner needs. Third, policy makers, business and industry, academic leadership, and funders would benefit from research on the ROI of funding adult student degree completion.
- Integrate learning and work. Coordinating the efforts (and funding initiatives) of the departments of Labor, Education, and Human Services could better serve the needs of adult learners. Adults, overall, generally seek additional training and education to be better prepared for career changes, promotions, and stability. Further, employers need to become more involved in all conversations regarding adult learners. What are the incentives to engage them in supporting learning for their employees?
- Recognize the importance of local and regional drivers. Key to effecting change is bringing local college leaders, employers, government and philanthropic entities together. This model focuses policy, funding, curriculum, and workforce development on specific local/regional needs. Successful initiatives can then be taken to scale on a state and/or national level.
- Credit bank for students. Another theme of the convening is the need for a credit bank where students can deposit documentation of the knowledge, skills, credentials, and other learning outcomes collected over a lifetime of learning.
CAEL will present the findings of the convening at the 2011 International CAEL Conference, and seek feedback and input from participants. CAEL will lead the creation of a national leadership commission on the Adult Learning Recognition Agenda to drive the work.