A New Model for Adult Learners

Nearly half of the American higher education population consists of working adults—over age 24, attending college part time, and balancing family, work, and school. Most of these learners are seeking knowledge and skills that will enhance their professional lives. They see higher education as an adjunct to their professional development. For many of these students, their employers are also offering them developmental opportunities that the employer sees as a necessary adjunct to those same professional lives. I think adult learners require a new model for college. Since adult students approach their education as an extension of their work life, college should blend itself with workplace learning rather than stand apart from it. 

Traditionally, higher education is viewed as a time of life when learners—usually late adolescents—spend most of their waking time gaining knowledge and skills. Learning is their primary occupation (yes, I know that many such students also work, but that is a rant for another day). The assumption in this model is that higher education is a moment in life when the bulk of skill building occurs. That gain happens through full-time immersion in both the classrooms and the living quarters of a college.

For adult learners, the underlying assumptions are different. First, working adults don’t have the luxury of devoting themselves full time to learning. They have families and jobs that require the bulk of their time and treasure. They also don’t need the socialization that is supplied by living at a college. But most importantly, they already know things, and many of those things are the equivalent of college level learning. It is this last idea that I want to explore.

Here at Charter Oak State College in Connecticut our students are all working adults.  Our average age at graduation is 39. Our adult students arrive here with around 70 transfer credits. That is the first difference from traditional age students. Our students are not rookies. They have college level credits, and they want those credits validated.

Second, approximately 50% of our bachelor’s students graduate with credits on their transcript from learning that occurred outside of a traditional college. Such credit is called Prior Learning (PLA) and includes testing, portfolios, military training, corporate training, professional certifications, and credits from organizations that are not accredited. The important fact is that adult students bring all sorts of college level learning with them as they enter our institution, and, if they are to be well served, it is our job to evaluate it and offer credit as appropriate.

It is time for adult serving colleges to go to the next level.  Instead of evaluating such learning on a case by case basis, we should be working directly with major employers to ensure that corporate training efforts coordinate with college degree offerings so that students can increase the benefit from both. In other words, for working adults the new higher education model should be a collaboration with industry not a separate, stand-alone effort.    

Imagine the possibilities. Graduate education is often focused on skills that students are currently employing at work. Using the PLA model, schools can evaluate actual workplace learning/training and combine that with coursework to produce the relevant credential faster and more economically. Likewise, employers could ask colleges to bring parts of their curriculum into their workplace in order to supplement the skills development they are planning for their workforce. Finally, colleges could request that employers supplement collegiate courseware with actual workplace training, projects, and personnel. 

At Charter Oak, we have employers sending their workers to our school for continuing education. One major hospital system is sending and paying for Associates prepared RNs to complete their BSN. In this case, the employer sees this skills development as good for the hospital and the employee. This is wonderful. But what I want to see is a serious conversation between higher education and employers about how to grow the workplace skills of employees using the resources of BOTH organizations. 

We are not serving adult learners well when we artificially segregate learning into workplace and higher education buckets. Every learning experience costs both the learner and the sponsoring origination money and time. Many of these efforts overlap.  Organizations often consider each training effort as single purpose activity (a degree step or a workplace improvement) while the learner tries to organize them as an integrated effort toward career progression. We can do better.