Part 1 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 first in a three-part series, outlines the case for expanding adult education in difficult financial times and highlights key components of successful adult learning programs. Subsequent posts will address how to integrate adult learning into the university landscape, and how to build the audience for adult learning through community partnerships and professional education.


The case for adult learning

Adult learning has historically been somewhat overshadowed by traditional degree programs at many colleges and universities. As institutions have responded to the financial pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic, this situation has grown more acute. While some institutions have strategically increased investment in adult learning, others have made significant cuts to preserve funding for other programs. By focusing on the short term, colleges and universities could be missing a key opportunity to enhance their revenue and support their mission if they scale back programs for adult learners.

The COVID-19 pandemic has in fact strengthened the argument for expanding adult learning. As the economic impacts of the pandemic continue to unfold, many adults will need to find work in new industries and will require new skills to do so. Undergraduate enrollment has dropped significantly, with overall postsecondary enrollment down 3% over the preceding year. One bright spot? At primarily online institutions, enrollment by adult students 25 years and older has increased 5.5%, reversing a 6.3% decline in the previous year.

Expanding adult learning programs can advance many institutional goals, including:

  • Higher enrollment and revenue: Certification programs and advanced and professional degrees rely less on tuition discounts and financial aid. Growth in adult learning programs can offset revenue lost in discounts and aid offered to undergraduate students.
  • Enhanced alumni giving: Alumni are a key target audience for adult learning programs. Their participation can enhance their loyalty to the institution at a time when alumni contributions are more important than ever to an institution’s financial health.
  • Improved corporate relations: Adult learning programs can strength ties with local businesses, providing professional development opportunities for corporate employees, internship opportunities for students, and other partnership options.
  • Greater student diversity: Adult learning is much more inclusive than traditional higher education. It encompasses virtually everyone, from high school students looking to train for college entrance exams, to displaced workers seeking new career skills, to retirees seeking programs that reinforce their love of learning.

Today’s adult learners want to access education throughout their lifetimes. A design team at Stanford University has packaged this idea of lifelong learning into a future model known as the “Open Loop University.” Rather than trying to focus on the four years that students traditionally attend college, they have imagined “an end to a society of alumni in favor of lifetime learning.” For all these reasons, now is the time to consider embracing a broader mission to support lifelong learning.


What makes adult learning programs successful

The most successful adult learning programs often follow three key principles:

1. They fulfill a need

In many industries, workers rely on adult learning programs to stay on top of their game or to change jobs. Government data shows that people hold an average of 12 jobs during their working lives. With constantly evolving technology and new uncertainties in many fields, routine reskilling may be even more critical for workers today.

Broward College, for example, has taken a lead in providing industry certifications in Florida. During its 2018-2019 academic year, Broward awarded more than 1,500 certifications or licenses in information technology, health care, public safety, and other areas. It has just added a “Rapid Credentials” program to help newly unemployed workers (and others) get their careers back on track.

It’s possible that smaller colleges and universities may have an advantage in adult learning because they can be agile and responsive to their niche market. To realize this advantage, they need to start by investing in quality market research so they can save the time, effort, resources, and heartache that may be unnecessarily expended by developing a program that doesn’t have a broad enough market.

2. They are well marketed

Website design is especially important when marketing to adult learners. Elizabethtown College, for example, has developed unique URLs for its adult programs. Other institutions have found success by highlighting the specific benefits associated with earning degrees, such as salary increases. Social media posts and appropriately timed email blasts also help attract adult learners. In general, digital marketing for adult programs tends to be most effective because these channels are most used by potential students.

Additionally, marketing plans should include corporate outreach, as an adult learning program could serve as the basis for an employer partnership (which we will discuss in a future blog).

3. They are convenient

Busy adult learners care about when classes are held and how often (such as one evening a week) and where they take place (such as an easy-to-access, centralized location or online). Online options will be particularly important for the near term, and many institutions have significantly advanced their online capabilities in response to the pandemic. Adult learners, particularly in high population centers with busy traffic patterns, select online programs that maximize the opportunity to learn in convenient locations, achieve time savings, and provide overall convenience.

Institutions also need to recognize that juggling long semesters can be difficult for adults who may already have a fulltime job. Odessa College in Texas improved its course completion rate by changing most of its courses from 16-week semesters to two, eight-week terms. Term length is an important factor for adult learners, as is length of time to complete a degree.


Other adult learning approaches

Many institutions have become quite creative in their adult learning approaches. Maryville University in Missouri, for example, has boosted its enrollment by catering its online education offerings to adults. Last year, it launched a dozen new programs including two master’s degrees, for adult learners.

Meanwhile, Salt Lake Community College’s School of Applied Technology has implemented competency-based education (CBE) programs that allow adult learners to save money and advance through programs as soon as they have demonstrated a particular competency, such as network configuration, rather than on a set timetable.

Another institution focused on adult learners, Indiana Tech, has earned recognition for the support it provides to veterans.

Some institutions, like Lasell University, have even created their own retirement communities. Lasell Village residents are required to complete 450 hours of coursework or activities each year and can choose from the university’s broad catalog or take courses made just for them. Other institutions, like Oberlin College and Arizona State University have developed similar communities.

With a range of options that can be adapted to smaller or larger institutions and strong demand for programs, adult learning can provide opportunities for growth at a time when many colleges and universities are facing unprecedented financial challenges to traditional, residential programs. An investment in adult learning today can position the organization to diversify and grow its revenues and enrollment and optimize its financial footing for the future.

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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