Part 2 of 3

Sustaining Higher Ed is a monthly blog dedicated to helping college administrators and board trustees lead their organizations toward greater financial stability so they can stay on mission during challenging times.

This post, the second in a three-part series on adult learning, discusses how adult learning can be integrated into the higher education landscape and how to address issues that may arise in the integration process.

As noted in the first post in this series, adult learning can be an effective way to expand enrollment, enhance revenues, strengthen ties with alumni, and diversify the student population. But it can also pose a challenge to the way in which an institution and its faculty think about their mission and roles. A thoughtful approach to integration can minimize the friction that an expanded adult learning program might generate.


Anticipating points of friction

Adult learning opportunities exist along a continuum that stretches from lower-cost, lower-reward initiatives—such as programs that allow retirees to audit traditional course offerings— to higher-cost, higher-reward initiatives—such as professional certificate or degree programs in areas such as marketing, entrepreneurship, or data science and analytics. As investment in adult learning grows, potential points of friction do as well.

Common sources of friction can include the following:

  • Demands on faculty time. Faculty may already feel over-taxed by teaching, research, and committee obligations. They may feel that requests to participate in an adult learning program will further detract from the time they can spend on their existing obligations and teaching and research interests.
  • Use of adjunct faculty. Professional education programs often rely on adjunct faculty who can bring practical knowledge and real-life experiences into the classroom. Tenured faculty may view programs that rely heavy on adjunct faculty as “second tier”; alternatively, they may feel challenged when asked to interact with successful and knowledgeable businesspeople whose work succeeds or fails in a different environment than that of the academic norm.
  • Impact on mission. Tenured faculty and other stakeholders, including alumni, may see expansion of adult learning into more practically oriented, skill-focused programs as detracting from or eroding the traditional academic mission of the institution.

If institutional leaders are aware of these issues and support adult learning, they can focus on integration strategies that address and mitigate these points of friction and help to ensure an initiative’s success.


Strategies for successful integration of adult learning

Successful integration of adult learning depends on establishing realistic expectations, being sensitive to faculty and other stakeholder concerns (and communicating and acting upon those concerns appropriately), and maintaining focus on the students whom the program serves.


Be realistic

When considering adult learning opportunities, a good starting question is not necessarily “Where is the need?” but rather, “What need can we meet?” To answer this question, institutional leaders must make an honest assessment of existing capabilities and attitudes within the institution. Are there certain departments that are more interested in adult learning than others? Are there enough interested individual faculty members to support an interdisciplinary approach to adult learning, which can ease the burden on any one department and cast a wider net for recruiting faculty talent? Is a certificate program a more realistic starting point than a degree program, which will require a greater commitment by full-time faculty, administrators, and staff? The results of this assessment will help determine the content and scope of an initial program offering, which can be the foundation for further expansion.


Be sensitive to concerns

An adult learning program is ideally an expansion of an institution’s mission and reach, not a replacement for or drain on the resources of existing programs. This should be the message from the start: Adult learning is about institutional growth and sustainability, and the success of adult learning will help support the institution overall.

Institutions should also emphasize the potential benefits of adult learning for existing faculty and programs. For example, faculty in many disciplines—such as business, economics, psychology, and sociology—might discover enriched teaching and research opportunities through interactions with adjunct faculty from corporations and professional fields, and with students with more diverse life experiences. Expansion of course offerings in adult learning can increase enrollment, deepen capabilities, and strengthen a department’s position within the institution.


Maintain focus on the students

Negative internal perceptions of adult learning programs often cannot be quickly overcome, but it’s important to note that these perceptions are not necessarily visible to students. Students’ perceptions typically will be based on the institution’s reputation and brand. It is the institution’s responsibility to ensure that students participating in the adult learning program have an experience commensurate with their expectations of the institution’s brand.

A strong institutional brand can also be a strategic asset in recruiting talented adjunct faculty to an adult learning program because these potential adjuncts will not only want to “give back” by teaching, but may also desire to be aligned with the brand to enhance their own professional experience and further their career development. The strength of this faculty will build the strength of the program, which in turn will ensure that students are indeed receiving the educational quality and value they expect.

Above all, integrating an adult learning program requires persistence. By starting with realistic expectations, valuing faculty, identifying willing participants in the program, maintaining a focus on the program’s benefits, and ensuring that student expectations are met, adult learning can not only take hold within the institution, but ultimately grow and thrive. 

If you have questions or comments, please email Larenda.

Meet the Author
Larenda Mielke

Larenda Mielke

Vice President
Larenda Mielke is a Vice President in the Higher Education division of Kaufman Hall’s Strategic and Financial Planning practice. She has extensive leadership experience in higher education in the areas of strategy, curriculum and program development, and more.
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