By Kim Cliett Long, Ed.D., Associate Provost for Administration and Extended Education Professor of Organizational Management at Wiley College
Higher education institutions seeking to increase enrollments, especially online, would do well to focus on adults. National Center for Education Statistics projections of higher education enrollment from 2007–2018 suggest that the number of students over twenty-five will remain stable or increase during the current decade (Hussar and Bailey 2009). Adult students have typically been labeled as nontraditional students. K. Patricia Cross referred to some of the same student groups using the term “non-traditional” some twenty years ago (Cross 1981).
The social and economic forces that have led to adults’ increased participation in higher education in the decades since Cross used this term are not likely to abate in the near future. These influences include an aging and increasingly diverse population, the rapid pace of technological change, and the constantly shifting demands of the workplace in this era of a global economy. However, the increasing numbers of adult students seeking to begin or complete degree programs are beginning to change this demographical group from non-traditional status to more of a traditional pool of students for colleges and universities.
Realizing the multiplicity of roles encountered by this sector of learners, one approach that progressive higher education institutions are using to attract and retain adult learners is by creating career pathways using stackable credentials and accessing prior learning within accelerated programs. These strategies help working adults attempting to complete degree programs realize incremental micro-credentials, certificate programs, and gain recognition/credit for college-level learning/skills acquired in the workforce or other recognized training situations.
Institutions deploying these supportive strategies for adult students realize increased enrollment and diverse revenue streams by becoming more adult student centric. This focus on increased opportunities for adults to use knowledge, skills and aptitudes acquired in non-traditional circumstances that increase access to education, lower educational costs, shorten time to completion and fuel the workforce and the economy, is a winner for all sides of the equation.
Cross, K. Patricia. 1981. Adults as Learners: Increasing Participation and Facilitating Learning. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Hussar, W., and T. M. Bailey. 2009. Projections of Education Statistics to 2018. Table 3: Actual and Middle Alternative Projected Numbers for College Enrollment Rates, by Sex, Attendance Status, and Age: Fall 2007, 2013, and 2018. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. http://nces.ed.gov/programs/projections/projections2018/.