Defining “adult learners” isn’t easy. Different models and studies define them as having one or more of the following characteristics: over age 24, military vets, baby boomers, more often women than men, having some higher education experience and credits, or having no higher education. Among this diverse group is a common factor: Adult learners face a number of obstacles that differ from those faced by “traditional” students right out of high school. But these obstacles are not barriers as long as there is a plan in place to overcome them.
The Financial Obstacle
In a 2013 Public Agenda report supported by The Kresge Foundation, money was one of the two main obstacles for adult learners in higher education. (http://kresge.org/sites/default/files/Is-College-Worth-It-For-Me-Public-Agenda-2013.pdf) Sixty-seven percent of adult learners said they were concerned about taking on additional debt to pay for school. “Most adult learners are financially responsible for dependent family members. Many already have debt from previous college attendance or they may have debt related to their children’s educations. The majority (56 percent) come from households with less than $40,000 annual income and 45 percent live with dependent children. One in four (24 percent) say they are already paying off student loans, either their own from previous attempts to pursue degrees or those of their children,” the report states.
Possible solutions to overcoming financial obstacles require initiative on the part of the student, but that initiative can bring rewards.
• Not duplicating classes already taken is a first step in reducing the total bill for education. Many students lose credits when they transfer from one college to another for a variety of reasons. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that about 28 percent of students are able to transfer some credits from one school to another. It is advantageous for students to see what schools or programs accept the education they already have to accelerate the process for attaining a degree. Academic advisors are a reliable source for mapping an efficient degree plan.
• Alternatives to receiving credit through traditional classes can reduce the number of classes a student must take. Competency-based education can accelerate a student’s progress along the educational plan. As students work through course material many may receive credit very quickly because of skills they have mastered previously or have learned on a job. When new material is introduced students can adjust the pace of their study and take additional time without feeling the pressure of time constraints. Credit for the course is tied to competencies – skills and knowledge – a student is expected to have mastered rather than seat time.
• Opportunities to receive education credit for prior learning – what students already know – are redefining and accelerating college degree paths. People learn knowledge and practice skills under many different circumstances. Students seeking to accelerate their degree may be able to receive credit for military or workplace training, taking national examinations or developing a portfolio demonstrating their expertise. A recent Council of Adult and Experiential Learning report, “Fueling the Race to Postsecondary Success: A 48-institution Study of Prior Learning Assessment and Adult Student Outcomes” (Klein-Collins 2020), showed that adult student who earned credit for prior learning were more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree within seven years: 43 percent in comparison to 15 percent of non-PLA students.
• Direct assessment programs also measure student knowledge through evidence such as projects, papers, performances and portfolios. For a school to be able to give credit through direct assessment it must meet federal guidelines and prove that the assessment is consistent with the accreditation of the institution and the program. The school must demonstrate how the direct assessment equates to the credit-hour standard. If a student attends a school that awards this type of credit it may significantly reduce time spent on education.
• This also presents an opportunity for businesses. Forward thinking employers realize that tuition benefits make it easier for employees to improve their skills, bring innovation to the company, and increase employees’ commitment to their careers.
There is no argument that higher education is a big commitment for adult learners, financially and otherwise. Understanding and evaluating the options available can effectively reduce the time and financial investment students spend in school and become a contributing factor rather than an obstacle to education.
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