As more colleges face the reality of a declining traditional student population, there’s a common belief that adult students are where the growth is.
But the reality is more complicated.
As it turns out, the share of American higher ed enrollment that is made up of adults or those who study part-time peaked in the early 1990s at 44 percent of all higher ed enrollment. Today, this population accounts for just 39 percent. The U.S. Department of Education forecasts that by 2027, postsecondary enrollment among adults will grow by just 1 percent, compared to a 5 percent growth rate for more traditionally-aged students. According to some measures, adult higher ed enrollment in the U.S. peaked in 2011 and is currently declining.
There are plenty of reasons why higher education needs to get better at serving adult students in order to achieve the kind of inclusive prosperity called for in our mission statements. But, the adult learner market is not automatically poised for the “demography is destiny” boom that so many higher ed leaders take as gospel.
"The adult learner market is not automatically poised for the 'demography is destiny' boom that so many higher ed leaders take as gospel."
Put simply, reaching and better serving this audience is not as simple as creating a new marketing campaign, or building another online program. It is especially important to recognize the unique needs of adult learners, who often face significant barriers to returning to school. Many are first-generation and lower-income learners who have historically lacked the support systems to succeed in a traditional higher ed setting.
But one particularly promising solution to engaging adult learners and increasing degree attainment is to more intentionally integrate learning and work.
Integrating Learning and Work in Service of Adult Learners
Adult learners are typically driven by career-related motivations: according to one analysis, 70 percent of adult learners say that gaining skills and knowledge directly related to the workplace is essential when choosing where to enroll. Working adults are self-directed, bring experience into the classroom and prefer learning that is practical and problem-centered. Recent research from Strada Education Network, Gallup and the Lumina Foundation found that among adults ages 25 to 64 with some college background but no degree, the single most common reason cited for having stopped out was difficulty balancing studies and work at the same time.
So in a world where options for informal learning are increasingly limitless, there is significant value in breaking down the barriers between working and learning—or as HR and corporate learning expert Josh Bersin puts it, “learning in the flow of work.” Importantly, employers themselves highly value this direction. In a national survey, we found that providing academic credit for experience and on-the-job learning was among employers’ top priorities for colleges and universities, alongside other work-integrated learning themes such industry validation and including real-world projects in the curriculum.
Learning at Work: Employers as the New Channel
Economic factors and shifts in how employers recruit, develop and retain workers have set the stage for employers themselves to increasingly become an important channel to adult learners and influencer of their educational choices.
In a tight economy, many major employers are launching or expanding “education as benefit” strategies to retain and develop their workforces. Signature examples of this trend include Walmart’s Live Better U program, Starbucks’ College Achievement Plan and Amazon’s Career Choice program. In addition, external and internal learning and development content is increasingly being curated and linked to formal educational opportunities for working professionals—via offerings such as Coursera for Business and “learning experience platforms” like Degreed. Through these platforms, just-in-time microlearning that happens on the job can slot into work-oriented credential programs, and increasingly, lower cost degrees.
What’s more, in creative corporate partnerships such as our bachelor’s degree completion program in advanced manufacturing systems at Northeastern University—developed in partnership with General Electric—workers can learn and apply new skills in real time on the manufacturing shop floor with feedback from industry mentors and faculty, all while earning academic credit.
Non-Degree Microcredentials as Pathways to Lifelong Learning and Degrees
From digital badges and nanodegrees, to MicroMasters and new types of certificates, there’s an explosion of professionally-oriented microcredential offerings, and employers are increasingly aware of and accepting of these educational options.
Importantly, rather than thinking about non-degree credentials primarily as “alternative” credentials that are substitutes to degrees, these smaller credentials can be useful building blocks toward degrees—giving adults the option to start, stop and restart learning over the course of a career, and across a variety of educational levels.
Since these non-degree credentials are being provided by a wide range of universities, technology firms, online education companies and professional associations, there is opportunity for partnership across this ecosystem in ways that link shorter-form learning to degree pathways.
At Northeastern, for example, we’ve partnered with both Google and IBM to recognize Google’s IT Support Professional Certificate and IBM’s digital badges for academic credit in our degree programs for working adults. Recently, Coursera announced a modular MOOC-based bachelor’s degree with the University of North Texas, and edX is experimenting with “MicroBachelors” programs as pathways to degrees. In addition, many community colleges across the country are increasingly aiming to create pathways into associate degrees based on the foundation of industry certifications, digital badges and non-credit certificate programs.
Outside of new program models and formal partnerships, students can tap into existing ways to measure prior learning to translate microcredentials and industry-based learning into academic credit. Research has shown that adults who are earn credit for prior learning are much more likely to complete degrees, and in a shorter time.
New Models of Experiential Learning for Adults
Finally, given adult learners’ work demands and career goals, there is a major opportunity to develop new experiential learning models that build on their existing work experience and give them the opportunity to apply their learning in the workplace in ways that will burnish their résumés with real work products.
The practice and feedback that experiential learning enables can result in strong educational outcomes, and demand for work-integrated learning is growing among employers, students, and policymakers alike. Internships, apprenticeships and capstone projects are all forms of experiential learning on what is an increasingly diverse continuum of at times interrelated models.
Still, most experiential learning opportunities are geared toward full-time students (think of the classic summer internship, or a full-time apprenticeship). Working adults can’t pause their current job for a short-term job placement.
This situation is changing, however, with experiential learning for adults taking the form of paid and unpaid employer projects, part-time gigs and capstone projects using real employer data and business problems. This is facilitated by the growth of online work and the “gig economy”—and the emergence of new software companies and marketplaces that enable experiential learning, such as Practera, Riipen, Parker Dewey and Student Opportunity Center, to name a few.
At Northeastern, we’ve built on our heritage of cooperative education and global network of employer partners to create the “Experiential Network,”, which weaves real-world work engagements into our programs for adult learners. This unique and still scaling model has grown to serve thousands of learners across 100 different academic programs—and is just one model for blurring the boundaries between education and experience in an adult learning context.
The Road Ahead
While many organizations are thoughtfully studying the future of work, it is time to chart the course for how that intersects with the future of learning. Similarly, much of the dialogue about career outcomes and employability in higher education has been focused on career discovery for traditional students and “college to career” models. The bigger market is college and career.
Recognizing the value of learning that happens in the workplace—often outside of formal institutional settings—can be central to turning the tide in adult learner enrollment. And that has immense societal benefits.
More intentionally integrating learning and work for adults will demand and create opportunities for new technology tools and companies; shifts in institutional strategy and culture; innovations in educational models; the development of a supportive policy and regulatory architecture; research on what works for both employers and learners; and extensive cross-sector collaboration. It is an exciting road ahead.