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What We're Learning from Adult Learners

Mar 9, 2018

by Carol D’Amico, Executive Vice President, Strada Education Network

In an ambitious effort to ensure that at least 55 percent of its adult population has a postsecondary degree or certificate by 2025, the state of Tennessee has turned its attention to attracting older learners back to college. With good reason: just 41 percent of Tennesseans today have a postsecondary degree or certificate. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported last month that Tennessee won’t meet its postsecondary education goals unless some quarter-million of its adults set their sights on the state’s colleges and universities.

But even with new programs that offer free tuition at community and technical colleges — and a statewide campaign that urges people with some college credit to re-enroll — Tennessee, like most states, has struggled to lure adult learners back to school. As it turns out, money isn’t the only barrier to capitalizing on the potential of Tennessee’s untapped talent.

Our own national survey — which includes more than 4,000 Tennesseans — indicates that only four in 10 adults in Tennessee believe they need more education to advance in their career. That includes nearly half of all high school dropouts and more than half of adults with either only a high school degree or some college, but no degree, who don’t see a personal need for more education.

These findings confirm the magnitude of challenge. Not only must we change the delivery system for postsecondary education to meet the needs of today’s students, we need to shift fundamental belief systems about the value of more education throughout their working lives.

To best understand what this critically important population wants and needs most from higher education, we’re asking adult learners themselves. Since June 2016, Strada Education Network has partnered with Gallup to interview more than 250,000 U.S. adults with experiences at over 3,000 postsecondary institutions about their educational experiences, decisions, and outcomes. The insights are representative of consumers from all attainment levels, socioeconomic backgrounds, races/ethnicities, and ages across the general population, alumni, and current college students.

Here's what we're learning by listening to adult learners:

  • Older enrollees are more likely than younger enrollees to consult work-based sources of advice about their major. For all others, work-based sources are the least used but most valued.
  • Nontraditional students are more likely than traditional students to view both their student advising and career services support as very helpful.
  • Nontraditional students — those aged 24 and older — are more likely than traditional students to believe they will graduate with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the job market and workplace. They are also more confident that their chosen fields of study will lead to good jobs.
  • Nontraditional students are also more likely than traditional students to have chosen their majors prior to enrolling, and they have less regret when looking back at their educational decisions.

One big takeaway present in these findings is that older students are more likely to know what they want and are confident that a postsecondary degree will help them reach that goal. What they need, and appreciate, is guidance on how to reach the finish line.

More institutions are beginning to understand this. Western Governors University (WGU) focuses nearly all its resources on the adult student. The average student at WGU is about 37. Some students are well into their 60s. A 2016 Gallup-Purdue Index survey, which compared 2,700 WGU graduate responses against national data, found that 81 percent of WGU students who graduated within the previous five years were employed. That’s compared to a national average of 74 percent. Engagement at work among WGU alumni was found to be 15 percent higher than the national average.

More than 70 percent of WGU graduates said their university experience was worth the cost versus just 30 percent nationally, and the university’s alumni are nearly twice as likely as graduates of other institutions to be thriving in all four elements — social, financial, community, and physical — that the index uses to measure well-being.

Because WGU is online and competency-based, the curriculum is flexible enough to adjust to adult learners’ previous experiences, as well as their busy schedules. But perhaps most importantly, WGU provides each student a mentor: a dedicated staff member who understands the needs and differences of older students. We’re finding this kind of mentorship by staff and faculty is key to improving success, completion, and well-being across all student populations.

It turns out adult learners and the institutions serving them well have something to teach us about how to best meet the needs of all students in today’s dynamic world of work.

Carol D’Amico is executive vice president with Strada Education Network, a national nonprofit dedicated to improving lives by strengthening the pathways between education and employment. Prior to Strada, she served in the U.S. Department of Education as assistant secretary for adult and vocational education, and as executive vice president and chancellor of Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. She joined the WGU Indiana Board of Directors in January 2018.

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