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Report: It's Time for 4-Year Schools to Welcome Adult Learners

The public mission of four-year colleges and universities needs to adapt to encompass adult learners, according to a new report. That's the population that may be most affected by the changes in education introduced during the pandemic — more so even than K-12 and college students, the report suggested. Not only did the pandemic expedite the "already rising need for adult educational programming," the report stated, but it "also opened the eyes of many adults to the opportunities afforded by digital learning platforms."

By committing to this segment of learners, the authors added, schools could alleviate some of the "financial pressures" they're currently experiencing as a result of "changing demographics and shifting public support." Simultaneously, they would open up greater opportunities for people of color and help reduce the achievement gap, since higher education has proven to be a "key pathway for social and economic mobility."

"New Horizons: American Universities and the Case for Lifelong Learning" was produced by the Longevity Project, whose lead content collaborator is the Stanford Center on Longevity, among other nonprofits, think tanks and media organizations.

The case for investing in adult learning has to do as much with the changing nature of work as it does with the shrinking population of traditional students. For example, the report stated, the share of jobs that require "a high level of digital skills" tripled between 2002 and 2016. About two-thirds of workers in 2016 said the need to improve their skills has never been greater, and seven in 10 noted that the need to grow their skills would continue for the next 20 to 30 years.

Helping the workforce skill and reskill for an uncertain future, the report asserted, is as big a job now as it was post-World War II, when institutions of higher education prepared themselves to work with veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill. One advantage of the pandemic is that adult learners have gained more confidence in using digital platforms, which could play a big role in addressing the learning needs of this segment of students.

The big challenges schools will have to tackle in pursuit of this goal are twofold:

  • Faculty "intransigence" for adopting new methods of teaching and learning; and
  • The need to sort out how to make various credentials "portable and 'stackable.'"

Currently, the institutional players addressing the needs of the adult learner are "more a patchwork of community colleges, for-profit universities, associations and companies." The credentials picked up at one school don't always transfer to another; and the lack of standardization among schools leaves credentials on the table, unusable in helping those students earn "more valuable academic certificates or degrees."

What's needed, the report concluded, is "greater involvement of four-year degree institutions." While that won't by itself be a "panacea," these colleges and universities have the "greater resources, teaching skills and program credibility" to help "transform adult learning and advance the critical cause of improving opportunity for tens of millions of American adults."

The report is openly available online. Its content production was supported by Instructure.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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