Universities Making Changes to Accommodate Adult Learners
Universities that wish to remain competitive and attract new students have moved far away from the sole model of the ivory tower atop the hill. They offer flexible learning to cater to an older demographic who demands more choices and individualized learning.
According to Kevin Ezzell, director for the School of Professional Studies at Albright College, almost 85 percent of adult learners aged 33-34 work full-time. Two-thirds of those students are female. One-fourth have experienced an online class before.
“Many students are working professionals who need flexibility. They want to learn in a way that fits their lifestyles,” Ezzell said.
Because nontraditional students generally don’t receive scholarships, many adult learners find an a la carte approach fits their learning needs and their budgets.
Dr. Carolyn Callaghan, Shippensburg University, interim dean for Professional Continuing and Distance Education, completed her dissertation on multigenerational and multiethnic female adult learners.
She cited two main motivating circumstances for adult learners: those advancing in their current careers and need a degree to get that next promotion and those who want to change careers or expand their skillsets to move into a related field.
According to Callaghan, universities are “rethinking what college looks like and grappling with how to blend what they do in a way that meets everyone’s needs.”
The underlying need for flexibility has universities retooling their programs to meet the needs of adult learners — aligned with the needs of employers.
Here are a few trending innovations you may find in today’s colleges:
Stackable credits – Student can earn a certificate or industry certification more quickly than a full degree. They stack their certificates together toward earning an advanced degree.
“The idea of stackable credits isn’t new,” Callaghan said, “but it’s really starting to take hold. Students are looking at the value of what a degree or certificate means to their employers. Value is a hot topic in education.”
Competency-based learning – This model refers to a credit system that is learning based rather than time based. Some models are entirely self-paced, and some offer set deadlines to ensure progress. If a student already knows the material presented in a particular class, she can “test out” and receive the credit rather than take the class.
Ezzell said, “This type of personalized learning is something of interest to the federal government, in terms of financial aid. It was a big a-ha moment in the industry.”
Online classes – While not a new concept, Ezzell predicts that more private colleges will be investing more in their online offerings within the next five years.
He said, “Just looking at the demographics for the declining numbers in the high school population, colleges will be trying to figure out how to best serve that population. The online market serves the adult learner market, too.”
Just-in-time model – Classes are available on demand and can be accessed when needed. Courses are self-paced and accessible from different devices.
Flexible locations – Universities are experimenting with degree programs that offer flexibility in attendance options: entirely online, blended combinations of classroom and online classes, reporting once per month, etc.
Space-age – Just as classes and reference materials can travel with the student with both just-in-time learning and online classes, students can also project themselves into the classroom as an avatar.
Callaghan said, “Some cutting-edge degrees lend well to virtual reality, and sims are a good way to experiment. At Harrisburg University, it’s one of their foundations.”
Badging – One trendy place you may wish to put your avatar and other flare is your electronic resume. A badge is a visual representation of accomplishments, achievements, or skills.
“Classes count for certain competencies,” Callaghan said. “It’s a new way to represent your resume and show your skillsets.”
Flipping the classroom – This refers to delivering instructional content, often online and outside the classroom, and then moving homework-type activities into the classroom. According to Callaghan, this is popular in K-12 and is something universities want as well.
“In class, [students want to be] active participants and take it to the next level, rather than be a sponge in class,” Callaghan said.
Cohort learning – For a more interactive experience, there is cohort learning. A group of students stays together throughout their chosen program. They develop a support system and learn together via a set pathway to degree completion. Some programs offer the opportunity to step in/step out when needed.
No office hours needed – Remember trying to schedule with the school’s career counselor? Now you can conduct that mock interview from home, which mimics many real-world scenarios.
Online tutoring – What about when you were younger and had to find a ride home after a late-afternoon tutoring session? Now you can take advantage of online, on-demand tutoring, video tutoring, or even tutoring via virtual chat.
It’s an advantage for tutors, too, because “they can tutor anyone in the country through a subscription service,” Ezzell said.
Digital textbooks – Prohibitive costs can be a huge barrier for textbooks. Some universities include textbooks with tuition. Others are offering them online to save expenses.
“Students can pay to print them,” Ezzell said, “so we’re addressing both print and virtual learning styles.”
Alignment with industry – With colleges being held to a higher standard on return on investment, Ezzell said, “we want to be blatant about developing soft skills and providing things employers want: well-rounded individuals who can write for business, manage a project, communicate, and work well in teams.”
Aligning with what today’s employers want, some of the newer majors are addiction studies, ethics in social media, an expansion in healthcare offerings, and logistics and supply chain management. With the heart of central Pennsylvania being a manufacturing and distribution hub, a degree in SCM is a love match for students planning to root themselves in this area.
If you’re thinking about going back to college, taking some classes, or even earning a certification, you can take advantage of more choices and possibilities than in years past.
“Whatever you think your barriers are, there are so many more options than there used to be,” Callaghan said. “It’s an exciting time for both universities and learners.” BW