Opinion: Higher Ed Must Do More to Support Working Adults and Family Providers

As enrollment rates of working adults increase, higher education institutions must evolve and broaden their support systems.

Feb 19, 2023 - 02:35
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Opinion: Higher Ed Must Do More to Support Working Adults and Family Providers

For the good of the economy, it is time for the sector to get creative in its support for those pursuing college credentials outside of the traditional full-time model.

Despite ongoing enrollment declines across the country, many Americans 25 years and older still value higher education at the undergraduate and graduate levels. In fact, this age group has experienced an increase in degree and certificate attainment in the last two years. However, working adult learners and providers must squeeze in time for their education around other priorities like taking the kids to soccer, shuttling mom to the doctor, and fulfilling their job duties, which may include military service.

As the nation turns a corner on the COVID-19 pandemic, these kinds of working adult students, who represent 40% of undergraduate enrollment, are stepping up to demand different kinds of support from higher education institutions. This population, which still places great value on higher education, and on whom we must depend upon in our future workforce, is more likely to enroll in more flexible, personalized, and on-demand options.

These learners clearly need and benefit from online and year-round postsecondary education opportunities. Traditional brick-and-mortar campuses are not designed with the flexibility to allow maximum access to working adult learners. Even online programs with inflexible delivery structures that mirror more traditional fixed course schedules are largely impractical.

Expecting working adults and family providers to navigate complex institutions primarily built to serve cohorts of students who can either get to a campus or join an online class during highly structured and narrow time frames is somewhat misguided. For example, a parent forced to choose between taking time away from work to pick a child up from school or to attend a college class — on campus or online — during the same time frame is more likely to prioritize their child’s needs over their own.

Consequently, the traditional college course delivery model contributes to the more than 39 million adults with only some college education but no college credential. It is also a deterrent to those with a degree and full employment who seek advanced degrees to move forward in their careers. With proper postsecondary accommodations and flexibility, these students could be set 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.

According to data released in mid-2021 by Strada Education Network, during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic alone, 37% of enrolled adults exited or altered their plans for higher education. Commonly cited reasons for leaving higher education were cost, the need to work, lack of accessibility to classes and family obligations.

As the pandemic recedes, colleges have a unique opportunity to re-enroll adults who paused their educational pursuits. Attracting working individuals back to school, however, will require delivery models that accommodate the needs of busy working adults. Many of these students have settled into remote work and expect to be able to incorporate schoolwork into their daily routine of activities – not the other way around.

What might that look like? Streamlining access through simplifying and supporting a user-friendly application process is a necessary initial step in facilitating re-entry. This includes helping students locate and order transcripts from previously attended institutions, supporting and accepting documentation of other prior learning, and nurturing students through the often overwhelming process of securing financial aid. Furthermore, this type of student support must be personalized to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse group of working adult learners.

As an example, even within the subset of learners who are affiliated with the military, the needs of active-duty military are quite different from those of military veterans. The funding source is different and the incentives to attend either face-to-face or online are not quite the same. UMass Global understands the varying needs of current and former military students. Alumna and former Air Force Staff Sgt. Samantha Reel said shortly before her June 2021 graduation ceremony that 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.”

Now working in the human resources field, Reel looks back on her university experience as a time when she gained relevant knowledge for her current profession.

“The Master of Science in Human Resources program at UMass Global laid a strong foundation for me and taught me to absorb and think critically about HR processes and policies,” she said. “My professors always encouraged us to dig into the core of the material, ask questions, look at case studies and pushed us to pause, reflect and think critically. One of the biggest takeaways from my time at UMass Global, in combination with service in the USAF, was the idea that there is no limit to what’s possible and that through education you can forge your path.”

While many new technological tools and services exist to support this re-entry process, very few institutions prioritize the integration and use of these tools in attracting students and holistically supporting their needs. Moreover, data systems that allow us to quickly predict when we need to adjust to individual student trajectories toward degree completion are either nonexistent or underutilized.

Other barriers are the fixed time frames for course offerings. Given the need to assure adequate “seat time” and package that seat time for financial aid eligibility, per state and federal regulations, most institutions still adhere to some version of semester and quarter systems. This requires students to enroll at generously spaced time intervals that may not fit their availability.

Typically, fall or spring semester (or quarter) enrollments that begin and end on specific days are the limited options available. Many shorter-term options are offered only during the summer, and even those often require students to make choices between family time and school time. This misalignment further dissuades adults from re-entering academic programs to complete their postsecondary aspirations.

Nearly everything we do outside of formal education has an online component that is predominantly offered on-demand. Why, then, are personalized and on-demand learning opportunities so rare? Colleges and universities that admit working learners should work harder to make re-entry easier by meeting them where they are.

To help working adults and family providers succeed, consider the following options:

  • Lift barriers to entry, especially around gathering transcripts and assessing prior learning experiences
  • Offer flexible start dates and varied term lengths throughout the year
  • Develop programs to allow students to progress at their own pace (i.e. competency-based programs) with flexibility in the order in which they address competencies
  • Build on- and off-ramps within degree programs that enable students to hit the pause button when life happens.
  • Align learning outcomes with in-demand skills in the labor market.

We at UMass Global have worked hard to implement flexibility wherever possible to best support our students who are primarily older adults with full-time jobs. Many individuals may need to step away from their coursework to tend to their other priorities. To encourage students to return and complete their credentials, we built a system that does not penalize a student for leaving school and returning when they are able.

Taking back-to-back semesters through degree completion is not always realistic, and we support students who need to temporarily put their education on the back burner while they tend to other important aspects of their lives.

The barriers to implementing such recommendations are partly regulatory, partly cultural, partly a lack of andragogical creativity, and partly arrogance in resistance to change. Yet, in the face of national enrollment declines and an ever-present need to deliver high-quality learning to working adults, institutions have an opportunity to evolve.

By making working adults choose between their busy lives and their desire to complete a postsecondary credential, institutions that do not change their mode of operation act as a barrier to opportunity for those seeking personal and professional advancement.

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