It is time for the industry to come up with innovative ways to support people who want to earn college degrees outside of the traditional full-time model for the benefit of the economy.
Many Americans over the age of 25 still place a high value on undergraduate and graduate education, despite nationwide enrollment declines. In fact, over the past two years, this age group has earned more degrees and certificates. However, adult learners and providers who work must balance other responsibilities, such as taking their children to soccer, taking their mother to the doctor, and performing their job duties, which may include military service, with time for their education.
These working adult students, who make up 40% of undergraduate enrollment and mark a turning point in the COVID-19 pandemic, are standing up to higher education institutions to demand a variety of assistance. This population, on whom we must rely for our future workforce and who still places a high value on higher education, is more likely to enroll in options that are more adaptable, individualized, and available on demand.
It is evident that these students require and benefit from year-round online postsecondary education opportunities. Traditional brick-and-mortar campuses lack the flexibility necessary to provide working adult students with maximum access. Even online programs that follow more conventional fixed course schedules and have rigid delivery structures are largely impractical.
It is somewhat misguided to expect working adults and family caregivers to navigate complex institutions that are primarily designed to serve cohorts of students who can either attend a campus or an online class within highly structured and constrained time frames. For instance, a parent who is forced to choose between taking time off from work to pick their child up from school and attending a college class—on campus or online—during the same period of time is more likely to prioritize the requirements of their child over those of themselves.
As a result, the over 39 million adults who lack a college credential but have some college education contribute to the traditional college course delivery model. It also prevents people with degrees and full-time employment from pursuing advanced online bachelor’s degree to advance in their careers. These students may be placed on a path that enables them to continue in their careers and personal commitments while completing the college credentials that will lead to professional advancement, higher wages, and greater fulfillment if the appropriate postsecondary accommodations and flexibility are provided to them.
Strada Education Network data from the middle of 2021 show that just in the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, 37% of adults enrolled in higher education dropped out or changed their plans. Cost, the need to work, inaccessibility to classes, and responsibilities to the family were frequently cited as reasons for leaving higher education.
Colleges now have a rare opportunity to re-enroll adults who stopped attending school due to the pandemic. However, in order to entice working adults to return to school, delivery models that meet the requirements of occupied working adults will be required. Many of these students have adapted to working from home and anticipate that they will be able to integrate schoolwork into their daily activities rather than the other way around.
How might that appear? A necessary first step in facilitating re-entry is to simplify and support a user-friendly application process in order to streamline access. This includes supporting and accepting documentation of other prior learning, supporting students through the often overwhelming process of securing financial aid, and assisting students in locating and ordering transcripts from previous institutions. In addition, this kind of support for students needs to be tailored to meet the requirements of a growing number of working adult students.
For instance, even within the subset of students affiliated with the military, the requirements of active-duty military personnel differ significantly from those of veterans. The incentives to attend in person or online are not exactly the same, and the funding source is different. UMass Global recognizes the diverse requirements of former and current military students. Former Air Force Staff Sergeant and graduate UMass Global “guided and tailored my academic experience to allow me to balance my commitment to the Air Force, my family, and my passion for growth,” Samantha Reel stated shortly before her June 2021 graduation ceremony.
Reel, who is currently employed in the field of human resources, considers her time spent attending university to have provided her with relevant knowledge for her current position.
She stated, “The Master of Science in Human Resources program at UMass Global laid a strong foundation for me and taught me to absorb HR processes and policies and think critically about them.” My instructors constantly pushed us to pause, reflect, and conduct critical thinking, as well as to delve into the fundamentals of the material, ask questions, and examine case studies. The idea that there is no limit to what is possible and that you can forge your path through education was one of the most important lessons I learned while serving in the USAF and attending UMass Global.
Even though there are a lot of new technological tools and services available to help with this re-entry process, very few institutions place a high priority on integrating and making use of these tools in order to attract students and meet all of their needs. In addition, data systems that enable us to quickly predict when we need to adjust to individual student trajectories toward degree completion are either underutilized or not present at all.
The fixed time frames for course offerings are another obstacle. Most institutions still use semester and quarter systems in some form due to the need to ensure adequate “seat time” and package that seat time for financial aid eligibility in accordance with state and federal regulations. Students must enroll at generously spaced times, which may not match their availability, as a result.
The few choices typically consist of enrollments that begin and end on specific days during the fall or spring semester (or quarter). Even those shorter-term options frequently require students to choose between family time and school time, and many of them are only available during the summer. Adults are even less likely to enroll in academic programs again to fulfill their postsecondary goals because of this misalignment.
Nearly everything we do outside of school has some kind of online component, most of the time available on demand. Therefore, why are on-demand and personalized learning opportunities so uncommon? Colleges and universities that accept working students should put in more effort to meet them where they are to make reentry easier.
Consider the following options to assist working adults and family caregivers in achieving success:
Reduce barriers to entry, particularly in terms of gathering transcripts and evaluating previous educational experiences. Provide a variety of start dates and term lengths throughout the year. Create competency-based programs that allow students to progress at their own pace and are flexible in the order in which they address competencies. Create on- and off-ramps within degree programs that allow students to pause when life happens.
Align learning outcomes with skills that are in demand on the job market.
At UMass Global, we have put a lot of effort into implementing flexibility whenever it is possible to provide our mostly older adults with full-time jobs students with the best possible support. It’s possible that many people will need to take a break from their studies to focus on other things. We developed a system that does not penalize a student for leaving school and returning when they are able to do so in order to encourage them to return and finish their credentials.
It’s not always possible to finish a degree in two semesters, but we help students who have to put their education on hold while they focus on other important aspects of their lives.
Regulatory, cultural, andragogical creative deficiency, arrogance in opposition to change, and a lack of andragogical creativity are some of the obstacles to putting such recommendations into action. Institutions, on the other hand, have a chance to change in the face of declining enrollment nationwide and the constant requirement to provide working adults with high-quality education.
Institutions that don’t change how they operate hinder opportunities for people who want to advance professionally and personally by forcing working adults to choose between their busy lives and their desire to complete a postsecondary credential.