Squaring the Circle for Adult Learners: How to Connect Prior Learning with the Liberal Arts

With the increase of adult learners in today’s higher education landscape, currently 27% of the undergraduate population, it is essential that colleges and universities meet both the unique educational needs of adult learners and maintain curricular quality. Fortunately, these two goals are neither mutually exclusive, nor are they incongruent with pathways we now see from education to employment. Innovations such as competency-based education and industry partnerships are examples of how institutions have addressed the changing student demographics and workforce demands. However, the quality of innovative education, just like that of conventional higher education programs, must be carefully assessed in order to be truly valued by all pertinent stakeholders.

Adult learners’ growing influence on college campuses is evident in the growing focus on support services such as on-campus childcare, flexible scheduling options, and online programs that allow students more autonomy in negotiating their school, work, and familial obligations. Additionally, the curriculum itself has evolved at many institutions to emphasize the applicability of a liberal arts degree in today’s marketplace. Experiential learning opportunities abound in college programs, and college graduates who demonstrate that they can practically apply their education on the job are in high demand. This curricular focus on employability may seem like a recent development, but through such educational initiatives as credit for prior or lifelong learning (CLL) and distance education, originally established to serve adult learners, have gained traction as tools for assessing college-level learning gained outside the classroom.

Competency-based education (CBE) is the latest innovation that advances this educational continuum. Adult learners with a limited work history, formal education, or training beyond high school have the most to gain in having their skills systematically evaluated to consider their competencies in areas that employers deem relevant for their industries. Lumina Foundation has been at the forefront of this initiative, investing in organizations that provide credentialing of verified skills, and developing partnerships between industry and higher education leaders to determine their shared educational objectives.

While most job growth in the future will be in occupations that require postsecondary training, the scope of that training and credentialing also varies according to the occupation. Not everyone needs or wants to earn a college degree, but by providing educational options to students that are nationally recognized as meeting industry standards, students gain the weight of accredited institutions and respected agencies supporting their independently learned skills and knowledge.

For matriculated adult learners at colleges and universities that offer credit for prior learning, the benefit of having their work experience articulated into credit validates both their professional and academic achievements. Eastern Connecticut State University, Connecticut’s public liberal arts university, vets CLL through one of two faculty- administered assessment processes. The first involves the articulation of students’ professional certifications directly into college credits, which are then applied to students’ majors or as elective credits for their degrees, depending on relevance to the student’s plan of study. For example, students who have successfully completed the Connecticut Police Academy certification receive 12 Criminology credits by our Criminology faculty who have already vetted the instruction and determined that it is equivalent in academic substance to relevant coursework at Eastern.

Through the second CLL assessment process, students submit a professional portfolio to a faculty committee for review as evidence of the college-level learning they acquired on the job. This portfolio could either focus on students’ proficiency in the areas of team-building, problem-solving, or communication, for which they could earn general elective credits, or on specific Eastern course credits if students successfully demonstrate that what they learned on the job is directly applicable to the knowledge they would have gained from taking the course. By the university ensuring that prior learning meets academic standards, students see both the value and correlation of their liberal arts education and professional experience. Faculty are likewise confident that the integrity of the curriculum promotes the value of a university degree beyond the corridors of higher education.

The merit of any educational innovation has to be self-evident when it measures up to assessment from multiple vantages. With 95 million potential adult learners needing to acquire some form of postsecondary credentialing for career, it is both urgent and in society’s best interest for higher education to lead on prior learning.

Dr. Elsa Núñez is the president of Eastern Connecticut State University.