Higher Education Changes for Adult Students. Or Does It?

Higher Education Changes for Adult Students. Or Does It?
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Four Noteworthy Developments in 2013...And What We're Watching in 2014

Written by Beth Doyle, Sr. Director of Marketing & Communication, Council for Adult and Experiential Learning

Higher education was often a front-and-center news topic in 2013, featuring stories about jaw-dropping levels of student debt and efforts by Congress to rein in college loan rates. The impact that higher education changes had on working-age adults did not get as much attention as it did for those in the 18-22 age bracket, but it was more than it has received in the past.

Approximately 55 million jobs are expected to open up in the economy by 2020, and 65% of those jobs will require workers to possess postsecondary credentials. The need to help more adults enroll in - and graduate from - college has become critical. And it hits home for most of us. Even if we have our degree, we likely know someone who is one of the 22% of U.S. adults with some college experience but without a degree. We also know what lacking a degree might cost them: job security and a decent wage.

There were four important issues affecting adult students that we had our eye on last year and are continuing to follow in 2014:

1) Students should earn college credit for what they already know. Prior learning assessment (PLA) - the concept of earning college credit for college-level learning that occurs outside of a classroom - is being recognized as a cost-effective, time-saving solution for working adult students.

Last year was one of its biggest years yet as PLA gained momentum among Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle. PLA also got a boost from President Obama, who called on colleges to award prior learning credits to students as part of his overall plan for college affordability legislation. As noted last March in Inside Higher Ed, "[t]he safe bet... is that credit for prior learning is going to continue expanding." And it's about time. With so many adults in need of a degree and the cost of college rising, it is just wasteful to force students to take courses in subjects they already know. This is even more relevant for adult students with 10 or 20 years of work and life experience.

2) College still is worth it. But... As evidenced by a report last November from the policy organization Public Agenda, many adults are not making informed choices about which school to attend. Many are failing to take into account important factors, such as graduation rates, and do not understand which types of institutions are better suited for their needs.

One idea proposed in the president's college affordability plan is a rating system that ranks schools based on factors like graduation rates, levels of post-graduation debt, and students' ability to find employment after graduation. There are also calls for education and policy experts to create more navigable online resources to help adults in their school search. For any of these systems to be effective, they must, above all, be user-friendly and informative.

Beyond school choice issues, adults enrolling in college also face decisions about their career path. Unfortunately, most of their advice is coming from friends or colleges interested in pushing their own programs. Very few college advisors use labor market data to determine job availability or are able to dedicate the time needed to match students with a career suited to their interests and strengths.
The gap between student needs and their college and career choices adds to the skill shortage. They may have skills, but not the ones in demand. The result is what experts call a skills mismatch, which may be damaging job creation even more than the problem of low skills.

3) MOOCs and online education are on the move. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) - which are web-based courses that are open to everyone and free of charge - continue to generate discussion. Some see their potential as a mainstream learning tool. Others see them as a way of commoditizing the college experience and lowering the quality of education. Despite the calls for the demise of MOOCs, there is no doubt that online education is here to stay. The ways that we all learn and receive information will only become more accessible as technology expands - and nothing can be done to stop that.

Before online courses, most adults did not have the work schedule, location or financial circumstances to attend college as a "typical" college student. They were essentially locked out of higher education. The impact of online education on working adults is an issue rarely discussed in these debates. Whether MOOCs remain, or are replaced with something new, more colleges and universities will be forced to acknowledge, and respond to, the needs of these students.

4) Southern New Hampshire University's CBE system. Last April, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) made news when it became the first institution in the nation to receive Department of Education funding for its competency-based education (CBE) system. This meant that instead of evaluating student progress on the amount of time spent in a classroom (using the credit hour, which is the default standard for measuring progress), students would now receive college credit based on their actual demonstration of skills learned.

SNHU is using the CBE system for an associate's degree program, and this development potentially opens the door for more institutions to develop their own CBE systems and receive federal funding. Like PLA, CBE could be a strategy to help students save money and time in their pursuit of a degree.

Where are we headed?

The higher education news this year was music to my ears. Never before have I seen so much discussion of ideas that are favorable to adult students. I look forward to the upcoming year, but I also worry.

Will we forget these ideas? Will our public officials and colleges continue to give them the urgency they deserve? Or will vast numbers of adults continue to be left behind? And if they are, will our businesses and country be left behind as other nations scurry ahead? Let's hope not, and resolve to do everything in our power to prevent that.

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