Should You Be Offering Accelerated Programs for Adults?
Written by: Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti
Published On: July 13, 2012
In 2006, the Louisiana Board of Regents took notice of a report that stated that online programs were growing fastest in the Southeast. "Where there is growth, there must be demand," says Luke Dowden, Ed.D., director of the office of distance and electronic learning at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and executive director of the Center for Adult Learning in Louisiana (CALL).
The Board of Regents put together a pilot program with a community college and a four-year institution with the goal of developing a program that allowed adults to complete a class in five to eight weeks. That pilot turned into the Center for Adult Learning in Louisiana, which will begin its fifth year in the fall. CALL has four purposes: research, program development, adult learning campaigns, and sharing information and policy.
The 6 keys to successful accelerated adult programs
1. Understand the reasons why adults return
One of CALL’s purposes is to conduct research on an ongoing basis. "It's not enough to have one market study," says Dowden. In this research, Dowden says the Center has discovered that the number one reason adults come back to school is for fulfillment. Qualitative data from throughout the state backs this up, with adult students reporting that they wish to finish what they started or that they want to be a good example for their children.
This finding may be a bit surprising to those who assume that adult students predominantly return to college to secure a better job. However, the study found that "job eligibility" ranked a distant second. Dowden calls these findings "amazing to me."
Other pieces of research may also help institutions understand the need for and the market for adult accelerated education. The Lumina Foundation for Higher Education has published "A Stronger Nation through Higher Education." This report gives a state-by-state breakdown of educational attainment, even drilling down to the level of looking at county-by-county educational attainment by young adults. The report is driven by the understanding that there are fewer jobs requiring no college education that serve as a reliable means of entry to the middle class. "These workers are less likely to have access to quality health care, save for retirement, or assure their children access to higher education. The consequences of failing to reach the middle class are increasingly severe, and access to middle class jobs is now mostly dependent on completing some form of postsecondary education," the report asserts.
2. Have an adult "concierge"
Dowden points to a white paper ("Bringing Adults Back to College: Designing and Implementing a Statewide Concierge Model") issued in November 2010 from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) that details the need for a "ready adult concierge."
The report defines a "ready adult (or reentry) concierge" as "a single point of contact at a college or university who helps returning adult students navigate the application, enrollment, and registration processes and overcome barriers to college success….The concierge also helps institutions and systems identify areas where change can help minimize or remove the barriers that students face."
The report identifies six barriers for adult students hoping to return to college. These include financial aid concerns, complexity of the reenrollment process, class scheduling and alternate delivery modes, transcript issues, anxiety and fear, and prior learning assessment. The report also suggests characteristics of the successful concierge: student-oriented, accessible, known to everyone, a continual resource, and a creative problem solver. This concierge can be a key to the successful reentry of the adult student.
3. Offer quality academic advising
"You've got to have good advising," insists Dowden. This is important for students of all types, but especially important for the adult student who may need help navigating the system and who needs to maximize their investment of time and money. "You don’t want people to waste their money," Dowden says.
Advisors should also be willing to dive into university policy and discover how it matches up – or fails to – with their adult student’s need. "You have to have advisors that will question policy," Dowden says. By way of example, he points to the "age credit" policy in place at some institutions. This policy will often state that credit that was earned a certain number of years previously – perhaps ten or more – is not valid for credit toward the degree. But Dowden points out that this is not a one-size-fits-all policy. While some fields advance so quickly that older course credit may not reflect what is needed for current learning, others progress more slowly. Also, students working in a given field may have experience that keeps them current in the field in question. If the adult student does not know who to ask, the advisor should be prepared to help navigate the process and advocate on behalf of the student.
4. Provide readiness opportunities
Dowden also suggests that adult learners need ways to measure their own readiness to return to college and to study online. CALL makes use of an instrument called SORT, the Louisiana Board of Regent’s Student Online Readiness Tool. This instrument allows a student to measure readiness both in access to and familiarity with technology as well as in study and lifestyle habits. The main areas of assessment include: technology experience, access to tools, study habits, lifestyle, goals and purposes, and learning preferences. Each section assesses the student’s readiness to study online, and a resources section provides additional support. The questions themselves give students a hint of the challenge that an online course will pose.
5. Conduct effective prior learning assessments
One of the keys to adult success is the credit they receive through prior learning assessment. In a report from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) ("Fueling the Race to Postsecondary Success: A 48-Institution Study of Prior Learning Assessment and Adult Student Outcomes"), the group found that adult students who received credit for prior learning "had better academic outcomes, particularly in terms of graduation rates and persistence, than other adult students."
The differences between the PLA and non-PLA populations were striking. The report found that "more than half (56%) of PLA students earned a post secondary degree within seven years, while only 21 percent of non-PLA students did so." The difference in completion rates was seen across both bachelor’s and associate’s degrees, and it held true regardless of institution size/type, student’s academic ability, student’s demographic profile, or whether the student received financial aid. Additionally, students who did not earn degrees during this period amassed more credit if they participated in PLA than did the non-PLA students. Finally and perhaps intuitively, students with PLA credit required less time to earn their degrees.
The study acknowledges that part of the success of PLA students that was measured may be due to the fact that students who pursue PLA are already more motivated and driven toward success than are other students. However, they also point out that "PLA itself [is] a powerful motivator, [is] a booster of self-esteem and self-confidence by validating students’ existing skills and knowledge, and [is] something that enhances student and alumni loyalty to the institution." These are powerful reasons to offer PLA.
However, there is a proper way to do prior learning assessment, and one tool for this can be a portfolio review. Dowden explains that this goes beyond the practice of some institutions that look at a student’s resume and award credit based on job history – perhaps a retail management job is seen as equivalent to a management class, regardless of the person’s responsibilities, learning, or subsequent growth.
"There is a legitimate process," Dowden says. He explains that one of the best methods for awarding credit for prior learning involves having the adult student prepare a portfolio that will be assessed by a faculty member in the discipline. "It's not done in the registrar’s office," he says. The CALL website explains, "College-level learning means that credits are not granted for life experience but rather for the knowledge and learning you have attained and can demonstrate for those life experiences." Other methods for assessing prior learning includes CLEP tests, departmental exams, and DANTES exams.
6. Do things differently
Dowden tells of working to develop an accelerated program for adults at a campus, and the difficulty he initially had explaining how a compressed term would work. "We're going to do what we do in the summer, twice in the fall and twice in the spring," he said, referring to replicating the shortened summer terms in the regular academic year. It took some repetition to reach understanding, and the institution realized that they had once used shortened sessions but had stopped the practice. Retooling for accelerated adult learning took "rethinking the things we were doing and why they stopped working," Dowden says.
Providing accelerated education opportunities for adult learners may be an imperative for institutions that wish to help adults reach goals of fulfillment and achievement and that wish to tap into a potentially eager market. Understanding the market and how to best serve it is the first step.
This article originally appeared in the newsletter Distance Education Report 15.13 (2011): 4,5. The Distance Education Report newsletter is dedicated to helping you improve your online learning programs, from the "big picture" to the nuts and bolts.
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