Taking Action to Remove Obstacles for Adult Learners
Spring 2019 All-Campus Symposium
A computer programmer looking for a career change wants to return to finish his bachelor’s degree 30 years after he earned his associates at a community college.
When the university he is applying to asks the busy father to produce transcripts from three schools he attended after high school, he becomes overwhelmed and wonders if it is worth the time, effort, and money required to navigate systems he hasn’t engaged in decades.
This is an example of a costly and frustrating scenario that frequently plays out across college and university campuses, according to Pam Tate, Chief National Partnerships Officer for the Strada Education Network who led a recent symposium on adult learning at Governors State University (GSU).
Rigid requirements —like the need to submit decades-old transcripts—become a wall between retuning adult students and the higher education they seek. Even at universities like GSU, which was founded 50 years ago with the purpose of serving adult students, barriers exist.Tday, nearly 50 percent of GSU’s students are age 25 or older.
Though universities must maintain high standards, some conditions may prove too difficult for people busy with jobs and families, said Tate, whose work at Strada helps non-profits establish national partnerships to help adults in the U.S. who either have no college at all or some college but no degree.
“These are adult learners and they don’t have time to waste,’’ she said.
During the spring symposium, Tate and attendees offered practical recommendations to remove barriers to adults wanting to return to school. The daylong event, attended by more than 100 GSU faculty, staff, and students, continued a series that started in the fall.
In October, Catherine Marienau, Professor and Coordinator of MA in Educating Adults Program at DePaul’s School for New Learning, discussed high-impact practices to effectively work with adult students, a fast growing segment on college campuses.
In Illinois alone, 1.8 million people over 25 years old have some college and no degree. Another 680,000 people have an associate’s degree but no bachelor’s degree.
“This is your potential market —2.5 million people who could earn a bachelor’s degree at Governors State. That’s 30 percent of the state’s population,’’ said Tate.
During the symposium, Tate presented 10 benchmark practices ranging from adaptability to financing to transitioning students that help adult learners succeed at colleges and universities.
One of the success strategies centered on prior learning assessments (PLAs).
GSU students seeking an Interdisciplinary Studies (IDSS) degree receive credit for prior learning, though President Elaine P. Maimon suggested the tool be engaged more broadly in a return to Governors State’s founding principles to serve returning adults, now part of the New Majority, which also includes first-generation students, students of color, and veterans.
“In 1969 and the early 70s, we were way ahead of the rest of world in higher education in terms of competency based education. We just didn’t have the technology to support it. As we celebrate our 50th anniversary, it is time to honor our roots in innovation and make sure we are leaders in this important movement of the 21st century,’’ Dr. Maimon told symposium participants gathered on the stage of GSU’s Center for Performing Arts.
Before the symposium, a selected cross section of GSU faculty, staff and administrators— institutional responders—as well as students over the age of 25 took a Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) survey to determine where GSU excelled in key areas and where the institution could improve.
Institutional representatives identified three areas where the university excels: student support services, such as academic and disability support; external partnerships, including community and social services for students; and student transitions in and out of the university as transferring or graduating students.
“There are so many great things going on here, and Governors State is a pioneer,” said Tate “We just want to make sure that things keep getting better.”
The base line data also indicated that GSU, like many universities including those with a long history of serving adult learners, have much more work to do.
On the problem of returning students being required to gather decades-old transcripts, Tate suggested the school take the lead by obtaining the records —and absorbing transcript fees—on behalf of the student.
“Now all those barriers have been removed and the institution takes on the responsibility,’’ she said.
Another suggestion was for academic advisors to engage students more holistically. In a model called Reconnect Café, advisors would be trained to discuss a myriad of topics such as social services and life goals to help students plan inside and outside the classroom. In this model, advisors encourage interaction with students instead of waiting for students to make appointments. Additionally, the advisors are available from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. to meet in a casual, café-like setting with coffee, bagels, and donuts.
To help students navigate a sometimes overwhelming college system, a GSU staff member suggested a Welcome Week for faculty and staff. Activities would include a scavenger hunt to help university workers find offices, service and program areas to better help students trying to navigate campus.
The spring symposium coincided with GSU’s budget planning, driven by the Planning and Budget Advisory Committee (PBAC) and the recently held Charrettes, public forums to gain to insight to help craft Strategy 2025.
During the symposium, President Maimon said the two planning processes dovetailed with ideas offered by Tate and participants.
“I am so uplifted by the work we’ve done here today. This is our blueprint, and some of the things we’re talking about are already in the works for next year,’’ she said.
Provost Beth Cada said the meeting energized her.
“Our best solutions come from the fact that we can sit together and we can do good problem solving.’’