Adult Students Have Moved Into the Mainstream. How Can Colleges Adjust?

EdSurge Podcast

Adult Students Have Moved Into the Mainstream. How Can Colleges Adjust?

By Jeffrey R. Young     Apr 30, 2019

Adult Students Have Moved Into the Mainstream. How Can Colleges Adjust?

This article is part of the guide: The EdSurge Podcast.

Did you see the Melissa McCarthy movie last year, where a mother drops her daughter off at college, and after some unexpected personal setbacks, decides to go back to school herself? In the film, “Life of the Party,” seeing McCarthy's character at a sorority party in a mom sweater is one of the gags, as this grownup is clearly shown as a fish out of water in higher education.

This is just the latest version of a movie that Hollywood keeps making every generation, and it represents a narrative that never seems to go away about what college should look like.

But the reality is very different. That mom going back to school is no longer the rogue outsider, but increasingly the mainstream when you look at who goes to college. True, these working adult students are not showing up at sorority parties, and they’re mostly studying online or using new models that colleges have built for them in the past few decades.

These students could be the answer to how our society will adjust to the coming robot age and solve the skills gaps identified by employers. So argues Marie Cini, president of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, a group working to support programs for these so-called nontraditional students, the real-life versions of the character played by Melissa McCarthy.

Cini has been in the role for about nine months, so she’s just starting to implement her vision for how her organization can help shift this cultural narrative, and help colleges get better at serving this huge group of learners.

And she has a recommendation for a recent film that does do a better job of showing the realities that students face today.

Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen. Or read a portion of the interview below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: What are some things that are different now, compared to 5 or 10 years ago, in terms of awareness and how well adults are being served with online and other digital tools?

Marie Cini: So even 5 or 10 years ago there was still this sense that adults were the exception—that the standard way to go to college was when you’re 18 to 22. And if you didn’t, there was something wrong, and we had to do some tactical things to help you move into that same model. But part of what’s changing is the pace of change itself. Now I think it’s very clear to most people that the typical student is the nontraditional student.

So it’s not the Rodney Dangerfield in that old movie, “Back to School,” where it’s this one grown-up on campus and it’s so weird.

But they still make movies like this. There have been new ones. Melissa McCarthy was in the latest one [“Life of the Party”]. She went back and joined a sorority. It is that sense of college is a very specific thing—you’re in the residence hall, you’re partying, you have four years.

But there’s this new sense that most people are not going to live in a residence hall, even traditional-aged students. Now college has to fit your life. You might not do it all at one time. You might purposely start with a certificate, and then move up the chain as you go on. I think the sense that it’s really a very different world now, and most institutions, even if they don’t know how to do it, they’re trying to serve the adult nontraditional student far better than ever before.

If the narrative has changed, how have the tools and resources changed for nontraditional students?

There are more options. I don’t know if it’s a lot better. First you have the growth of large adult-serving institutions that focus on those nontraditional students. It used to be that only a handful of universities (including my former employer, the University of Maryland University College) really focused on adult students. Now you’ve got Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, and [and other large institutions] that have really reached out to these new learners.

More institutions, whether they’re small colleges or larger, they’re going online and even thinking about competency-based degrees. They’re at least offering courses in the evenings and on the weekends, which is the least you need to do for adult students. I think there are more options.

But the typical university or college needs to think in terms of transformation because what they do now is all built around the fraternities, sororities and having a party for four years.

So you’ve been at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning for nine months. What brought you there?

It’s a wonderful organization that started in the seventies with a group of faculty who really cared about adults. And they created this rigorous methodology to help adults take their informal college level learning—the learning you get from your job [and convert it to college credit].

We have many adults who just never finished an undergraduate degree, but they’ve become a vice president of marketing. They have the equivalent of a major in marketing, so do we really want to make them come back to college and redo the major in marketing, or could we find ways to help them translate that into college credit? And that’s what the roots of CAEL really were, this prior learning assessment methodology. It’s really based on this model by David Kolb, [a pioneering educational theorist,] about experiential learning, and how you extract true learning from your experience based on reflection and connecting it with some theory.

But over time, CAEL started moving into other areas, working with employers to do advising for adult students who were getting tuition assistance. Working with workforce regions to help them think through their skills gaps and how adult students could actually help them create or move up in terms of their learning so that they could fill some of those gaps.

What is your plan for the organization?

We need a continuous process so that all adults are learning, and then in careers, and learning again, and going back to careers. So CAEL now needs to focus on the strategy and the next level of where we find ourselves in our society and our economy.

We’re right in the middle of the action. We’re not knocking on the door of higher ed anymore. We’re not saying, ‘You guys have to pay attention to adults.’ In fact, higher ed knows it needs to serve more adults, and for good reasons.

Adult students are not the exception that we somehow have to create special programs for. All of us have to see them as actually a fundamental solution to a lot of the problems we have in our society. We have skills gaps. But guess what? There are a lot of adult learners out there with some extra training, extra education. They could actually fill those skills gaps. Employers need employees who will stay. We need to help you think through how to upskill your employees as a retention strategy. Higher ed needs to think about how to better serve adult students. It’s kind of like the name of the game, adult students are where it’s at, and it will be this way forever now.

You’ve been involved with competency-based education, the idea of measuring learning by testing outcomes rather than just counting how much time students have spent in class. I don’t hear as much about that these days. Is that because maybe there is less activity in that space, and maybe other things are filling that need? What is the state of competency-based education right now?

It’s happening, but there’s always that hype cycle. CBE was hugely hyped. And then it has settled into, ‘alright so it’s actually hard work.’ You can’t just throw a program together. I think what we’re seeing now is it’s going to be another modality that many institutions will be either developing or making part of their programs. So it’s definitely moving forward.

It’s kind of like online. Everybody is doing online now, it’s not a big hype anymore. But at first, it was going to change the world. Well, it didn’t. It’s just a part of what you need to do if you’re going to serve all of your students. I think competency-based education really has moved into that arena. It’s still happening, it’s just quiet.

What is a good movie about higher ed? What is the cultural representation that gets it right?

I’m going to put a plug for a film called “Unlikely.” It’s a documentary funded by some foundations. While CAEL didn’t have anything to do with actually developing it, it really is the story of why CAEL cares so much about adult and nontraditional students. It is a story of three or four students that try to go through college when they were at the traditional age, and how our current college systems and university systems failed them. Because maybe they ran out of money. Maybe they needed childcare. One young woman was going to be a doctor, and she had a child and had to stop out, and there was no way to continue in college.

Over and over again there were barriers put in the way of these students that if we had a more flexible system—[such as with competency-based options]—they could have had a better outcome. It is a sobering look.

That is the movie that needs to be made as our new cultural representation. Unfortunately though, it’s a little sad, it’s not funny. These folks didn’t have a chance to join a sorority or fraternity. They had a very serious real life, and they still needed college. That’s the reality of college students today. If we can get that message out there, it’s very important.

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