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Adult Learners and the Completion Agenda

Holly Zanville, Strategy Director, Lumina Foundation
Center for Energy Workforce Development, National Energy Education Network

As a Strategy Director for Lumina Foundation, one focus among many for Dr. Zanville is increasing degree completion for returning adults with prior college or no credentials, and statewide approaches to reverse-transfer degrees through the national Credit When It’s Due initiative.


Good morning—I’ve been so pleased to join you at this forum. The very goal of the forum tells us that you already get what the problems are, you’re working on solutions, and you know that you can best leverage the many changes that are needed through a powerful industry network. The forum’s program is all about the “game changers” that will affect the energy industry and workforce going forward.

At Lumina, we’re concentrating as well on what we believe are gamechangers ─ from our vantage point as a national Foundation with a sole focus on higher education.

And this is what I want to focus on this morning, two efforts we’ve been working on for the last few years ─ with many partners ─ that we believe are vital to the completion agenda and that we believe are gamechangers. The first is increasing degree completion for returning adults with prior college and no credential. The second is significantly expanding programs that award associate degrees to transfer students when the student completes the requirements for the associate degree while pursuing a bachelor’s degree ─ or what we call the Credit When It’s Due initiative.

On the surface, these two may seem unrelated. One effort addresses the large number of folks –some 37 million in the United States—who have some prior college credits but no credential. For this group, we’re working on solutions with partners to encourage many to return to colleges and universities to complete a credential. The second effort addresses a large number of students who transfer from a community college to a university without the associate degree—some transfer with as few as 15 credit hours, others with 24, others with 45 or more credit hours. These are students who complete the credit hours and requirements of an associate degree then while pursuing a baccalaureate degree at their university.

How are these two efforts ─ returning adults and Credit When It’s Due ─ related? To answer this, I need to invoke Lumina’s big goal, called Goal 2025: that is, by 2025, 60 percent of Americans hold high-quality degrees, certificates or other postsecondary credentials.

In our study into what it will take to reach the 60 percent credential goal by 2025, the data tell us that demographic changes and trends in postsecondary attainment by traditional-age students make it unlikely the U.S. can grow the proportion of the labor force with postsecondary attainment by focusing primarily on recent high school graduates. Clearly, returning adult work is closely related to the college completion agenda.

But where does Credit When It’s Due come into this? As I mentioned, Credit When It’s Due focuses on students who transfer from community colleges to universities without the associate degree ─ who complete the requirements for an associate degree en route to the baccalaureate at the four-year institution. A key question for these students is, should they receive the degree? Until very recently, the answer—at least in practice—has been “no.” And now that the answer is turning into a “yes” in many states, then who awards the degree—the sending community college? The university? A third-party aggregator instituton?

Lumina along with several funding partners is currently supporting 12 large-scale (primarily statewide) partnerships of community colleges and universities to significantly expand programs that award associate degrees to transfer students when the student completes the requirements for the associate degree while pursuing a baccalaureate—and to answer the many questions associated with such a process. What’s especially interesting to us is the “why” question. Why are we interested in awarding students an associate degree if they’re already en route to a baccalaureate? Because, unfortunately, the data tell us that many of these students are going to stop or drop out of the university. And this group of students then ends up joining the returning adult population—swelling the already-huge number of Americans who have some college and no credential.

Again, we might ask if this is really a problem for these students? After all, some have acquired 60 or 80 or 100 college credit hours. Can’t they just take their college transcript to employers and employers will recognize that these students have completed, typically in good standing the data tell us, two, three or four or more years of college?

When Lumina convened employers from multiple sectors in focus groups a couple of years ago to explore the perceived value of an associate degree vs. no degree but some years of college, some employers told us that one of the ways they screen applicants in their computerized employment process is by degrees—the individual is required to have a degree; if they don’t have one, the computer screens them out.

This tells us that having a degree in hand for many of these students is high stakes. And having earned an associate degree would get these students into the running in a potential employment opportunity.

Would earning an associate degree hurt a student who did go on to complete the baccalaureate? We think not. Some recent data seem to indicate that students with the associate degree are completing their baccalaureate at a higher rate than those who have not.

So the lightbulbs went on for us that these two efforts might be “gamechangers” in a completion agenda: help adults who have already left school who are out there with some college but no credential return to complete a credential; and help students before they stop or drop out with no credential to earn a credential when they demonstrate the appropriate level of learning. This is why Lumina along with various partners has been investing in these approaches.

I’d like to share some lessons learned from our adult learning work over the past few years and also share some recent data on the severity of the problem.

Two months ago Lumina released the fourth edition of our signature report, A Stronger Nation through Higher Education. This report provides data to help folks understand and address the college attainment challenges in each state and county in the state -- plus the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. The report is designed to help folks identify the student populations that face the toughest road to success. There’s a major focus in Stronger Nation on adult learners.

What does the new version of Stronger Nation say about how well the states are doing?

Let me give you just one example—from Indiana since we’re meeting here today. At its current pace, by 2025 Indiana will reach a degree-attainment rate of about 41 percent of the state’s adult population by 2025. That will fall below the 46.5 percent rate that’s expected nationally if we project current trends of degree production out in a linear fashion, and it will fall well below the national target of 60 percent. More to the point, it’s far less than what economists and labor experts say will be necessary to build a truly skilled workforce in Indiana ─ and in all the states. The Georgetown Center for Higher Education and the Workforce advise us that by 2018, just five years from now, two-thirds of all jobs will require some type of postsecondary credential.

How then are Indiana and all the states –to accelerate progress toward what we call Goal 2025?

We believe that the economic future of all the states depends on producing more college graduates ─and an excellent place to begin is with those who have attended college but not earned a credential (the returning adult population). For Indiana, in 2011 this population totaled about 746,000 adults—22 percent of the adult population. All of the states have significant numbers in this some college/no degree population. Encouraging these adults to complete degrees would go a long way toward helping the nation reach the 60 percent goal.

So what can be done to help these adults complete credentials?

In 2010, Lumina awarded $19 million in grants to help support 20 large-scale adult degree completion efforts. We’re supporting work on multiple levels: national, state level, metro level, and some networks of higher education institutions. We didn’t know when we went down this road which of these efforts would gain the most traction but we were pretty sure some would go better than others. Now we’re working with an evaluation team to try to determine which of the strategies are working best—and why. So, this is the body of work we’ve been mining “lessons learned” from. I’ve picked out seven from a list of about 20 to share with you today.

Lesson #1: Comprehensive approaches are better than piecemeal. The most successful of the statewide efforts have a set of institutions committed to working on adult learner issues and improving policies and practices to better serve adults; they have agreements on prior learning assessment so the institutions are looking at being on the same page about what they’re giving credit for; they have adult degree completion degree programs tailor-made for adults and are moving to develop ways for people to get into career pathways.

Lesson #2: Certificates dominate. Where we’re seeing increased numbers of completers in the adult learner efforts, they tend to be at the certificate level, not the associate or baccalaureate. We think this finding reflects the dire economic situation over the past few years for returning adults who have had a sense of urgency about attending school to earn a degree and try to move forward in their careers.

Lesson #3: Prior learning assessment is gaining traction but plainly put, we’re not there yet. The faculty know increasingly that prior learning assessment is important and they know there are multiple methods for doing PLA. There’s good support for using College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests and other exams ─ mostly for general education but not upper division. Other methods such as portfolio assessment have been offered at a smaller number of institutions and involve unique approaches which follow national standards promulgated by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL)—but there is not widescale use of portfolio assessment. Other types of PLA such as evaluations of corporate and military training by the National College Credit Recommendation Service and the American Council on Education use standardized approaches that are accepted by more institutions but are often not counted toward majors and specific degree programs. With technology rapidly changing the learning environment, however, all these methods are becoming more standardized and uniformly accepted. There is tremendous promise in PLA but there’s a long way to go to make these services and the acceptance of them widely available and supported.

Lesson #4: Going after students after they have left the higher education institution is not as effective as finding them when they’re still at the institution. The reality is, it takes a lot of work by higher education institutions to identify adults who have left the institution and determine if they have completed a degree or how close they are to degree completion. We have a highly mobile population, so institutions go through a tedious process of looking in their own databases for students, then oftentimes in the state system database, and then going to a national match ─ the National Student Clearinghouse ─ since some students, of course, have completed a degree elsewhere over a period of years. All to say, it’s more cost-effective for institutions to determine if the student has completed the requirements for a credential before they leave the institution.

Lesson #5: The math problem. Many adults are essentially missing one course—in math. And the perception is they cannot get through college Algebra, which until recently has been the typical college math requirement. Many institutions are working on reforms to their math requirements—to determine if they can permit a wider array of courses to satisfy the math requirement. It might be a Statistics-based math course, or finite math. This is the responsibility of the faculty to make these determinations.

Lesson #6: Networking matters. Networks are very useful to folks working in the adult learner area. Many efforts have accelerated their progress by learning of approaches in other locations they would not have thought of (e.g., Texas learned from West Virginia about using the Department of Motor Vehicles database to find missing students).

Lesson #7: Everyone is interested in returning veterans. Every statewide effort is trying to scale up their efforts to work with veterans, and the need is to address policies (e.g., will they receive resident tuition rates) and academic practices (e.g., website redesign, student advising and counseling services, articulation and credit for prior learning, and career pathways that work).

When we at Lumina look at all of the work we have supported and a lot of the other great work in adult learning underway throughout the U.S., we have concluded that systemic changes are especially needed in three areas:

  • more adult-friendly practices and policies.
  • more tailored degree programs and career pathways for adults.
  • more options for smooth transfer and prior learning credits.

This fits closely with what I have heard in the sessions here.

In my remaining minutes I’d like to share some take-aways from sitting in with you in some of the sessions yesterday because they seem so important that they’re worth underscoring. And because we’re here in Indiana ─ David Letterman’s home state ─think about this as my attempt at the Letterman list of top 10 things I heard you say the energy industry needs to do with education to prepare today’s workforce for jobs in your industry:

#10 Partnerships are key to gamechanging work. No one sector can do this alone.

#9 Industry is an important “lever” to get higher education to change -- pressure must come from the industry to higher education that change is needed in the curriculum.

#8 The “Rule of 8” or one of the panelists yesterday said, the “Rule of 100”—tells us we have to work hard on messaging, messaging, messaging ─ to make meaningful, sustainable changes on both the industry and higher education sides.

#7 The idea of a common core curriculum that meets the needs of multiple industries like energy, manufacturing, construction—and potentially others—is a compelling next step that needs to get implemented: it recognizes that higher education cannot afford boutique programs anymore—and expands choice for students as well.

#6 Career pathway models are increasingly the name of the game.

#5 The new models that have so much promise will have three components ─ they will blend the online “technical” curricula developed by the utilities, with college curricula that has been informed by industry needs, with hands-on training at companies.

#4 Companies use and are going to use pre-employment assessment tools like ACT’s NCRC to identify career-ready new workers—and students need to know this and need to prep for these assessments.

#3 The recruitment of a more diverse workforce is a priority—this means reaching out to many more populations, being straight with folks that employment opportunities may not be close to home but in other locations, and stepping up efforts to recruit military veterans because they bring such an ethos of ‘service and sacrifice’ along with many skills needed in the industry—but prior learning assessment needs to be stepped up to assess—legitimately − what credits veterans should receive to accelerate their progress toward credential completion.

#2 Funding help is key to developing new pathways and partnerships. Many of you cited grants that have funded much of this innovative work (e.g., Dept. of Energy grants, DOL TAACCCT, Gates Completion by Design) and funding partners should not lose sight of this.

And the #1 thing the energy industry needs to do with education to prepare today’s workforce…

#1 Prepare folks who have math and science capacity (STEM).

I wish there was humor in this list. But we all know that this is serious, serious work.

As an outsider dropping into your discussions, let me close by commending you for the progress you’ve made in these many models you’ve described, and the far-thinking visions you have for furthering your industry’s needs.

I really liked Bob Powers’ closing statement yesterday: “I’m going to work to keep the lights on.” I wish I had a better line of closing. But I don’t…

I’m happy to take some questions and hear your views on game-changing approaches.

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