Redefining Tradition: Adult Learners and Higher Education

Article excerpt

For many, achieving a college degree is a lifelong dream, characterized by opportunity, hope for a bright future, long-term career options, and an overall improved quality of life. Yet, access to American higher education continues to be limited by complex structures and systems such as financial barriers, expectation gaps in learning between high schools and colleges, and unclear student pathways among institutions of higher learning.

According to recent figures cited in a 2008 report entitled, Adult Learning in Focus: National and State-by-State Data produced by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), the U.S. now ranks tenth among the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in the percentage of young adults (aged 25-34) with a postsecondary credential. This is not because the U.S. has declined, according to the report, but because other nations have caught up with and surpassed the U.S. It is estimated that in order for us to meet the standard of today's leading nations, we need to set a goal of having 55% of the adult workforce earn at least an associate's degree as opposed to 34% which represents our current level.

Similarly, in a 2006 U.S. Department of Education report, entitled A Test Of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. higher Education, "90% of the fastest-growing jobs in the new knowledge-driven economy will require some postsecondary education" (p. 7). The overall benefits to society and the individual are evident in several ways. In 2003, the median salary of an American worker with only a high school diploma was $30,800, compared with $37,600 median for those with an associate's degree and $49,900 median for those with a bachelor's degree (The College Board, 2005). Furthermore, Synder (2005) notes that an individual with a bachelor's degree will earn a lifetime average of $2.1 million which is almost twice as much as a worker with a high school diploma. Long-term earning potential is one direct benefit of a college degree. However, some other benefits might include: greater work productivity, significant contributions to a particular field or professional discipline, increased involvement as a leader at the local community level through volunteer and service activities, and active participation in political and social justice issues.

Although it is widely accepted that a college education contributes to the overall well-being of individuals, communities, and society at large, we are challenged by the lack of progress in educating more citizens and developing the necessary intellectual capital to sustain and invigorate our workforce. Currently, the "nation's labor force includes 54 million adults who lack a college degree, and of those, nearly 34 million have no college experience" (Pusser, Benenman, Gansneder, Kohl, Levin, & Milam et al., 2007, p. 4). If the U.S. is to continue to be viewed as a leader in innovation and economic prosperity, we must adapt and respond to the changing demographics of our students and to the needs of employing organizations. It is increasingly evident that meeting the growing demand for more college-educated citizens requires a transformation of state and national policies related to higher education.

Adult Learners and the Academy

The vast majority of U.S. colleges and universities are offering and developing programs designed to attract adult students to their campuses. Adult education programs have the potential to improve local communities and regional economies as well as contribute to the overall global economy. Employers are looking for lifelong learners with the ability to be resilient, think critically, solve problems, communicate effectively, manage technology, and adapt to the changing needs of the workplace.

So, where do we stand today with adult students? What are the current issues surrounding programs for adult learners in higher education? How can we foster a transformation in local, state, and national policies to diminish barriers experienced by adults returning to college? …