Adults have done so much in the work world that when they come back to college they bring a specific set of baggage. If we can unpack that baggage, our classrooms will be packed with students who bring unbelievable context to the academic setting.
These adult learners might not be perfectly prepared to write an APA paper, but when given the tools, they can plug back in and be the best students that you could possibly have as a professor.
Dr. Matt Bergman, Assistant Professor at University of Louisville, came on the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss why – when it comes to recruiting adult students – rather than giving them another chance to earn their degree, we need to ask them to give us another chance.
Why Focus Outreach on the Adult Learner Population?
“One specific and pragmatic reason is the demographic cliff we’re facing,” Matt says. “The birth rate has basically created a situation where we’re not going to have as many high school graduates filling the pipelines of our higher education institutions. We have to look at other avenues to make sure that we maintain enrollments.”
This demographic cliff may not affect elite institutions, but mid-level and low-level ones already struggling for tuition revenue are going to have to seek different avenues to fill their pipelines.
Adult learners may be what colleges need because there are roughly 36 million adults who hold some college credits but no degree. That is a lot of people schools can help to finish what they started last year, or long ago.
The Importance of Prior Learning Assessments
“At the University of Louisville,” Matt says, “we offer a prior learning assessment similar to that of many institutions across the United States. You wouldn’t think that many institutions offer college credit for work-related experiential learning, but it is rampant within both traditional and more adult-focused institutions.”
Matt lays out four specific reasons it makes sense for universities to consider prior learning assessment (PLA).
- It is empirically proven that students can get to graduation at a faster pace and with a greater graduation rate when given access to PLA. Someone that comes in from the outside, working full-time for 10-plus years can produce and compile a portfolio, receive college credit, and reduce time to graduation.
- When adult learners work through this process, they are more engaged in the academic setting.
- Students with access to PLA take an average of 9.9 credits more than those who don’t. That sounds counter-intuitive. Why would you say a person who is getting college credit would take more college credit? “The retention rate and the persistent rates of adult students is so much lower than traditional age students,” Matt explains, “that when given an opportunity to access PLA, they’re actually persisting at a higher rate, thus generating more college credits.”
- Finally, PLA will not impact the discipline. UofL, for instance, does not grant PLA credits toward a specific major. Instead, the school counts them toward elective base credit and general education classes.
How to Optimize Course Scheduling for Adult Students
We ask Matt – for the part-time adult student looking to balance family, work, school, what can institutions do to make it easier for adults to complete their degree faster?
“Research shows that when a person enrolls full-time they are more likely to graduate,” he tells us, “and that sounds wonderful, but with adults it doesn’t necessarily work.”
Making full-time seem like part-time requires ingenuity.
At the University of Louisville, Matt’s colleagues had to rethink how they offer classes. Today, they work on an eight week semester, which is tied to the academic semester calendar. Participating students can get close to 24 or 27 hours in the one-year timeframe.
“You start in August, then you have another class in October, then you have a winter session class, then two in the spring, and two or three in the summer, and you are absolutely tearing up credit hours towards your degree,” Matt says.
Next-Steps Advice for Providing Better Service and Support to Adult Learners
“If you are part of a Graduate Network community,” Matt says, “connect with them because they can funnel students into your institution when they know that you offer adult learner friendly practices.”
Other helpful organizations to connect with include the Council on Adult and Experiential Learning, STRATA, Lumina, and the Complete College America.
“I think traditional institutions are starting to get there,” Matt says. “We have really been pushed by the for profit sector to get our stuff together as traditional institutions to serve these adults in a better manner.”
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