Changing higher-ed operations to meet returning learners' & adult learners' needs will help avoid another type of enrollment cliff.

Here’s a new way to look at the enrollment cliff

Here are 8 things to remember as higher-ed looks at a different enrollment cliff of sorts--one that represents the barriers and difficulties adult students encounter

Each year, we share our 10 most-read stories. Not surprisingly, many of this year’s Top 10 focused on generative AI, adult learners, and higher-ed trends. This year’s 5th most-read story focuses on how the impending enrollment cliff can impact adult learners.

Rising costs, increasing student debt, the potential effects of AI, questions related to the value of a degree: these and more are contributing to the perfect storm for colleges and universities. An aspect that, perhaps, has the greatest attention from leaders of institutions of higher education, their CFOs, and enrollment managers is that of the enrollment cliff–the potential catastrophic effect of the looming shrinking of the college-age population and the decrease in enrollments seen, or predicted to be seen, across the nation.

Changing demographics, the effects of lower birth rates during the great recession, and decreases in the perceived “value” of a degree, with some states and corporations opening up jobs to those without one, definitely have serious consequences for institutions of higher education, ranging from lower revenues based on enrollment-derived tuition and state funding, decreased use of facilities and consequent decreased revenue from auxiliaries such as residence halls and meal plans, and increased competition for students leading at times to greater investments in non-academic facilities.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data show that between Fall 2010 and Fall 2021, the total undergraduate enrollment in degree-granting post-secondary institutions decreased by 14.6 percent, from 18.1 million to 15.4 million, with the overall college enrollment rate for 18–24-year-olds decreasing from 41 percent to 38 percent.  A recent analysis of NCES data by Tyton Partners showed that of every 100 students who enter high school, 87 will graduate, 53 will start college, only 33 will earn a degree, and only 22 will get a “good job.”

Looking at it another way, 67 of every 100 students entering high school will not earn a degree, and 78 will not gain from what is often termed the best investment that anyone can make–that of a college degree. Of the 4.2 million students who attended the ninth grade in fall 2021, 2.81 million will not get that ring. Over a decade, that’s more than 28 million–not an insignificant percentage of the population and not one that bodes well for the future. The National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) estimated that as of July 2021 there were 40.4 million Americans with some college and no degree, of which more than 64 percent were between the ages of 20 and 44–the prime period for gaining prosperity and upward social mobility. Combined, that’s tens of millions of students/learners looking at a different enrollment cliff–one that represents the barriers and difficulties in enrolling and progressing, unable to have the opportunity of gaining from the promise of higher education.

Add to that the large number of people with degrees already in the workforce who, now or in the near future, are going to need advanced knowledge, skills, and training to remain relevant in a workplace that is shifting rapidly. Even greater changes are predicted as the increasing use of AI continues to transform the workplace and, consequently, the qualifications that are already needed due to the rapid convergence of information and technology. A recent report from the Pew Center estimated that workers with a bachelor’s degree were more likely than those with only a high school diploma to hold a job with the most exposure to AI, with the exposure and risk of replacement being the highest for those who earned $33 per hour on average, while those in jobs earning $20 per hour had the least amount of exposure. Other studies estimate that the use of AI will take the role of a billion people globally and make 375 million jobs obsolete over the next decade, and that although almost 100 million new jobs will be created, most will need skill sets that could not be obtained by those laid off without significant retraining and reskilling.

While the term “enrollment cliff” has been made popular from the perspective of institutions worrying about a drop in enrollment, there is perhaps a more profound and critical perspective – that of learners who desire to gain from the opportunity of higher education, of gaining knowledge relevant to their progression in careers and to increasing socio-economic mobility. This enrollment cliff is one of barriers and obstacles, of myths and misperceptions regarding the learner’s ability and preparation, of the inability or lack of interest in a significant part of higher education to move beyond “traditional students,” and affects tens of millions of learners. Isn’t that the issue that we should be focused on, and shouldn’t this be the “enrollment cliff” that makes headlines and catalyzes action?

This is not a case of “either-or” in terms of student/learner populations. Rather it is the necessity of focusing through a student-centered lens on removing barriers to access, affirming talent and supporting progression, attainment, and advancement through building scaffolds, steps, and elevators ensuring that every potential learner is given the opportunity of attaining the promise of a better tomorrow, without having to scale the metaphorical cliff of barriers and obstacles to entry and participation. This means re-envisioning focus, structure, and approach. This means engaging not just with the traditional 18- 24-year-olds, but also with adult learners and working professionals, stop-outs, and those with some college and no degree who need a credential to move forward, learners desiring to transfer between 2-year and 4-year institutions, and increasing segments who are precluded from participating because of the decades-old philosophy of the student having to come to college rather than knowledge being taken to the learner wherever they may be. While there are some notable institutions of higher education that are focusing on these learner populations, far more needs to be done–especially at the level of public universities.

In terms of a focus on the adult and returning learner, the student who has faced obstacles in entering, or re-entering, the knowledge enterprise, higher education needs to change its perspective, re-envision its approach in attracting and enabling success of these populations, and even reimagine its role looking forward and building opportunities. Universities that create a welcoming and supportive environment will not only attract this demographic but will ensure their success. These potential students are self-motivated and driven to succeed. We just need to create the systems that give them a good experience, acknowledging that their presence on our campuses and in our classes adds a huge positive dimension to the educational experience of our “traditional” students due to the tremendous diversity of life and career experiences they bring. Although universities may well view these potential students as an attractive demographic to pursue, especially as they struggle with decreases in the “traditional” student population, there are specific aspects of difference that must be kept in mind if the needs of returning adult learners are to be met adequately, absent which these students are unlikely to attend public universities.

1. Recognizing that they are different from “traditional” students

Adult learners, and especially those returning to gain a degree after years of experience in the workforce, have different needs and expectations than an 18-year-old. Their time is valuable; they come with tremendous real-world experience that is equivalent to, and often exceeds, a lot of coursework. Their expectations regarding the value proposition of time spent in gaining knowledge are justifiably high. Unlike the 18-year-old in awe of an older instructor, these students are not overcome by titles and qualifications but come expecting the development of skills and talent, and the acquisition of knowledge, that will help them break through the glass barrier created by their lack of degree or accelerate their professional advancement by use of new knowledge. These differences need to be recognized and addressed right from the point of recruitment/application, through orientation (acknowledging that for these students the orientation is not a “feel-good” activity but one of purpose and intent, focused on identifying resources, understanding policies, and developing the procedures and contacts to optimize their academic endeavors and learning) to their overall engagement, the experience needs to focus on their goals and optimize the use of their time.

2. Decreasing “red tape” and unnecessary barriers

Individuals who have substantial work experience expect efficiency, customer service and convenience—all aspects that are perhaps not at the uppermost of the general academic lexicon. Ensuring that response times in areas ranging from admissions and financial aid to registration, prior course assessment, and transcript evaluation are short and that students do not have to run from pillar to post to get questions answered are essential if we are to meet the justifiable expectations of adult returning students. Asking them to find all old transcripts when the most recent one, or a certification that required it, was readily available is just putting up a needless barrier as is requiring them to repeat a non-essential course just because it was taken 5 or more years ago. Similarly, taking months to complete an audit of courses to assess transferability is just not acceptable.

3. Providing credit for prior learning and experience

Many returning students have completed some level of coursework in years gone by, and we need to acknowledge that for most of them, the grades earned five or more years ago do not adequately reflect their current levels of intellectual skill, understanding, and motivation. A “C” earned five or seven (or in many cases more) years ago should not automatically result in rejection for a subsequent course. Rather, previous work experience and performance need to be assessed and accounted for, including through mechanisms of competency-based learning. Similarly, asking a student to repeat a course, despite their having taken a similar one in the past because it did not match exactly, makes little sense. The use of supplementary online modules, or assessment of knowledge based on experience to bridge the gap, would be sufficient and in fact if the courses are close this should not even be an issue. Yet, it is surprising how many times students are asked to repeat courses because of differences in title and minor differences in scope. In addition, just as faculty and administrators justifiably feel that they have the knowledge, motivation, and ability to learn new material by themselves rather than going “back to school” to prove competence, we should expect that most returning adult learners are able to bridge gaps in knowledge by themselves with minimal hand holding if appropriate guidance and resources are provided. We need to acknowledge that these are highly motived, extremely hardworking adults who come back with clarity of purpose, and we need to treat them at that level, clearing barriers so that they can progress as fast as they can rather than being bound by what many feel is a meandering walk.

4. Ensuring flexible learning structures including accelerated programs

It is important that we provide flexibility in timing, shorter-term lengths, and multiple starts to match the schedules and responsibilities of returning adults. Our current semesters were based on the agrarian calendar and the concept of a credit hour was originally based on the need to devise a mechanism for pension for faculty. Advances in technology have made it possible for us to augment traditional forms of interaction and access through online/digital means and it is critical that we use these, adopting best practices already largely implemented by the for-profit and nonprofit online institutions to afford opportunities that are not constrained by time, space, or location. Highly motivated and driven students with years of work experience could well complete tasks faster than their “traditional” counterparts. We should not use “time in seat” as a metric of advancement, or rather as an inadvertent means of slowing their progress to degree or completion of a credential.

5. Enhancing modularity of offerings

Just as faculty and administrators would be insulted if asked to spend months reading background material that was considered to be duplicative of existing knowledge before they were allowed to gain new information, we need to recognize that these students have often gained significant knowledge that is relevant to our courses through their work experience, and we should provide mechanisms to assess and give credit for this.  The unbundling of degrees through modularization of courses along with mechanisms for assessment of prior knowledge is an aspect that needs to be implemented across the board so that students can rapidly move up to the requisite level rather than waste time repeating preliminary and introductory material.  While crucial for returning adults, such mechanisms would also assist in personalizing the educational experience for all students. We further need to recognize and acknowledge that these returning students are highly motivated and can attain significant goals by themselves if appropriate guidance, direction, and resources are provided and that they can address gaps in knowledge without having to always go through highly structured and time-intensive courses.

6. Enabling financial aid

Adult students often have as great a need for financial aid as those entering directly from high school–and often even more, because of family responsibilities. Just because they have jobs does not mean that financial aid is not necessary. Many have family responsibilities, including children and aging parents. Returning to gain a degree may require cutting down on work hours or a second job, and universities need to be aware and cognizant of their needs, as well as of the nuances and intricacies of financial aid for those drawing a salary elsewhere. Rapid recognition of the difference and working to assist them rather than trying to use the same guidelines as those for more “traditional” students is essential. This is an area of significant need as related to relevant policies at both the institutional and government levels.

7. Providing clarity in pathways to jobs

College is not a right-of-passage for these students. Rather it is a means to a better future, a higher-paying job, and/or a more desirable career. Universities need to ensure that the curriculum and courses offer clear pathways to these goals and that academic knowledge is augmented by helpful career development centers and partnerships with the corporate/nonprofit sector to enable rapid progression. Universities need to enable this from day 1, assisting in placement and career advising, and ensuring integration of industry-desired certifications and stapling/stacking of credentials that will help both in their ongoing work responsibilities and in climbing their career ladders.

8. Enhancing opportunities for network building

Returning adult students often are shy and need assistance in building networks and support systems for themselves within academic settings. Special efforts need to be made to do this as well as to expand their horizons and opportunities through networking with alumni and corporate partners. Academia needs to recognize that these students are not interested in, and probably do not have time for, partying and socializing and that every minute they spend at the institution or online is time away from their families and other ongoing responsibilities–and hence, activities need to be intentional and purposeful.

While there is need to significantly change the way we operate to meet the needs and ensure the success of the growing adult returning population, it should also be clear that these additions and changes will positively impact all students, irrespective of age or background.  In fact, one could argue that attention to these aspects has been long overdue and that public institutions of higher education need to accelerate change if they are to remain relevant in the 21st century. Oddly, this simple idea—that higher education should primarily serve as a means for helping individuals access opportunities that will lead to a better life for themselves and for their families—is regularly dismissed by those within academia as ignorant of the “higher” virtues of education, such as the creation of good citizenry. We need to realign around the true purpose of higher education. With renewed clarity of purpose and greater collaboration between academia and industry, we’ll be one step closer to designing a more effective and inclusive system that makes opportunity work for everyone.

5 strategies to help community colleges re-enroll adult learners
Higher ed continues to see changing enrollment, low confidence
For more news on the enrollment cliff, visit eCN’s Campus Leadership page

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