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Research: What Value Does a Degree or Certificate Hold for the Adult Learner?

PIs from UPCEA and Hobsons offer impressions of the first phase of their joint longitudinal study

The University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) and Hobsons completed a pilot study of 990 adult learners from eight higher education institutions during AY 2013-2014 and have recently released "Measuring Impact: Findings From a Study of Adult Student Gains and Satisfaction."

Investigators polled adult learners who had attained bachelor’s degrees (and/or advanced degrees), associate degrees, or credit certificate credentials from the participating institutions within the past five years. The research focused on the impact of these credentials on individuals, in an attempt to measure ROI not only in straight financial terms but also in other areas relevant to career and employment, such as perceived job security, promotions, salary increases, and feelings of confidence in the job marketplace.

Research findings have prompted recommendations both from education professionals in the field and analysts at UPCEA and Hobsons, especially highlighting: (1) the potential for an education ROI calculator (updating the existing notion of an education price calculator with factors beyond financial costs), (2) the opportunity to adjust student services to cater more specifically to the adult learner, and (3) the need to translate observations of previous student impacts into new student advising guidelines in the future and better communicate the value of a degree.

CT asked Jim Fong, Director of the UPCEA Center for Research & Consulting and Todd Bloom, Chief Academic Officer at Hobsons for their comments.

Mary Grush: Other research is available on the value, especially in financial terms, of attaining higher education degrees or certificates. This includes data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. How does the Measuring Impact study differ from all that?

Jim Fong: One of the issues we've struggled with in the past is that even given all the existing data out there, including data housed by the BLS and the Department of Education, there is a surprising lack of adult learner-centric data available. So with our study, we are trying to generate more data specifically on the adult learner.

Plus, we are looking at the adult learner from the perspective of what their goals and challenges are, their levels of self-confidence, their access to education and jobs, and other factors beyond salary to determine ROI.

Grush: What were a few of the findings that surprised the investigators, or that seem to point to important trends or maybe opportunities for change?

Todd Bloom: I was a bit surprised, though not completely, with regard to the lack of engagement and ascribed value to the services that the respondents' institutions offer in the form of general student services, financial services, or career services. These students, adult learners at 24-34+ years of age, are savvy shoppers. They are spending their hard-earned dollars on education and are going to try to get the most they can out of that spend. I was hoping that we'd see far more value ascribed to the services that can truly help students be successful during school and even more so as they transition after graduation into a new job or move up in their current employment.

I think what that means, though, and one of the learnings that came out of our pilot study, is that institutions that provide continuing education services or service the adult learner, should do some thinking about how they target that type of learner and how that learner is different than, say, a 20 year-old more traditional undergrad student.

Adult learners make up a very large proportion of students, and we know that support services are critical for them both during and transitioning out of college. So, the question is, how do you differentiate student services so that they are meaningful for not only the more traditional, 4-year student but also for the adult learner? I hope we can build on this question in Phase Two of our research.

Fong: One of the objectives of the study was to confirm the financial value of degrees and certificates. The study shows that, relative to a degree, there definitely is a significant amount of financial value, especially considered over the course of a lifetime. So responding to your question, if folks will learn to look at the cost a college degree from an investment standpoint, and what it can pay back in terms of future earnings, that would be a real opportunity for change. How do we get people to look at that? It's a piece that is very critical in all this, along with considerations of greater job security, mobility, self confidence, and access to the job market.

And the question then becomes, how do you translate all that into a message of advising and counseling within the institution?

Bloom: In terms of the implications from our reporting on the pilot study, and the reactions we received, I thought it was very insightful on the part of one of our webinar attendees last week to ask, "Does this lead in any way, shape, or form, to the inclusion of a net value calculator, as being useful to a prospective student?" Following on the last few years of efforts on the part of institutions to create net price calculators, we know that these are interesting initiatives that provide more clarity about price. But what we are interested in — and what really what germinated our study in the first place — is value, not just price.

When we think about a net value calculator, what I especially like about that is that it gets away from the concerns that many folks have at institutions around a federal ranking system based on common measures. A net value calculator would be based on those factors that the institution believes are important: the institution’s mission and the students the institution tries to attract and enroll.

I think one of the major implications coming out of the pilot, Phase One of our study, is that value and return (ROI) are not simply income improvement for the adult learner, but as we discussed earlier, it's also about confidence in one's career, security in one's own job, and the opportunity that comes with the next steps in your career. With this input we are already moving on to Phase Two — stay tuned!

[Editor's note: Institutions wishing to participate in the next phase of this research may contact Jim Fong, jfong@upcea.edu or Todd Bloom, todd.bloom@hobsons.com.]

About the Author

Mary Grush is Editor and Conference Program Director, Campus Technology.

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