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Strategic Choices Facing Institutions Serving Adult Learners

Tomorrow's Academy

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Confronting an era marked by dwindling support and increased competition, it is incumbent on faculty, administrators, and higher education leaders at colleges and universities to broadcast who they are, what they do, and what makes them valuable. 



The posting below looks at the increasing role of adult degree programs at many traditional institutions of higher learning.  It is from Chapter One, Understanding the Context for Adult Learners in Higher Education, in the book Understanding and Supporting Adult Learners - A Guide for Colleges and Universities by Frederic Jacobs and Stephen P. Hundley. Published by Jossey-Bass.A Wiley Imprint 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741[]. Copyright (c) 2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Strategic Choices Facing Institutions Serving Adult Learners


Although state-assisted colleges and universities educate a growing proportion of all students, new types of institutions have also appeared. Nontraditional providers, for-profit colleges and universities, and institutions that use technology as their primary mode of instruction have emerged in many markets. In addition, many existing colleges and universities have reexamined and revised their missions in light of changing student demographics and enrollment patterns, and in response to what Smith et al. (2004) described as a "mismatch between student and faculty expectations, and the differences between what colleges think is important and what parents and employers want" (p. 7). Townsend and Dougherty (2007) ask three important questions concerning the mission foci of community colleges, in particular: (1) Is the societal mission of a community college to provide post secondary education to students who might not otherwise obtain it, or to be responsive to the needs of local communities, including business and industry? (2) Should its dominant functional mission be to provide transfer education so that students can eventually attain a baccalaureate, or should the institution concentrate on workforce training and continuing education? (3) Given demographic shifts and pressures to be accountable and demonstrate student learning, are the traditional community college missions still relevant? Given the diverse constituents that higher education must serve. Townsend and Dougherty (2007) remind us that "it behooves college leaders to prioritize missions in order to focus institutional resources on those deemed most vital to their institution's goals and values" (p. 3).

As the need for information and workforce competency increases, so too have partnerships between higher education institutions and their local community stakeholders. These partnerships are particularly successful when each partner brings a different skill or experience to the relationship so that together they achieve - often more effectively - what they might be unable to accomplish separately. Positive elements include shared mission, consolidation of redundant activities, strategic growth, expanded economic opportunity, and access to and conservation of resources. Partnerships between higher education and other stakeholders, particularly business and industry, must "look past the 'value-added' rhetoric that accompanies most calls for educational alliances and more closely examine for whom a partnership is of value, at what cost, for what benefit, and the extent to which it is sustainable" (Amey, 2007, p. 2). Despite the perceived benefits of collaboration, many partnerships fail to obtain desired results, cannot be sustained, or cease to benefit both parties. Some potential roadblocks or obstacles are the challenges of preparation and sustainability of the partnership, varying levels or wavering leadership support, inflexibility of one or more partners' policies, practices, and procedures, and negotiating the political and ethical consequences of the partnership (Amey, 2007; Cervero et al., 2001; Dotolo and Noftsinger, 2002; Hansman and Sissel, 2001; Spangler, 2002).

Growing student demand and government expectations have made it imperative that institutional leaders become prudent fiscal managers and aggressive generators of ever-changing revenue streams. As a result, current economic challenges and financial motivations permeate nearly every aspect of college and university leadership today and require ongoing calibration and prioritization of activities (Alexander and Ehrenberg, 2003; Dickeson, 1999). Higher education institutions are facing significant challenges in both their admissions approaches and financial aid interventions. There is growing pressure to increase tuition revenues as well as selectivity and diversity among students who choose to enroll. As a result, (Crady and Sumner (2007) predict that some institutions will become smaller, some will close, new student markets will develop, and students who might have selected a more prestigious college in the past will select a more affordable college instead.

The adult learning market, which contributes to the broader economic development of a region by addressing needs for lifelong learning and an educated citizenry, also represents important financial streams for institutions. As Matkin (2004) notes, "over the past twenty years, the business model associated with adult degree programs, which focuses on the revenue they produce and the contribution margins they generate, has moved from the periphery of the institution to a more central position" (p. 61). Thus, adult baccalaureate students have become an important component in the enrollment planning and management strategy at many institutions of higher education. Rather than diluting quality, these students contributed in positive ways to both the fiscal and academic vitality of institutions. Matkin (2004) notes, "There are two markets for higher education: the residential or traditional degree market and the nonresidential, nontraditional market. One reason for making a distinction between these two markets is that it usually costs a great deal more to educate the residential degree student than the nonresidential, part-time student" (p. 62). Some colleges and universities recognize and foster the dynamism of this student population whereas others harbor animosity and mercurial attitudes toward adult learners (Bash, 2005).

Confronting an era marked by dwindling support and increased competition, it is incumbent on faculty, administrators, and higher education leaders at colleges and universities to broadcast who they are, what they do, and what makes them valuable. Strong institutional identity requires clearly recognizing your organizational strengths, effectively communicating how you are different in a crowded marketplace and building collaborative partnerships both internally and externally to promote greater awareness and recognition among key stakeholders (Anctil, 2008). Effective marketing of adult degree programs requires planning, market research, developing relevant program and services, and retention strategies that focus the unique needs and characteristics adult learners (Pappas and Jerman, 2004). It also requires what Bash (2005) simply asks faculty and administrators to consider: What do I want my program to contain or deliver?

Finally, increasing student enrollments and exploding state needs in workforce and economic development have led to a call for increased responsiveness from colleges and universities (Burke, 2004). Bueschel and Venezia (2009) recognize that attention to college access has improved opportunities for students of all backgrounds to participate in higher education. In spite of this effort, many entering post secondary students-especially in community colleges-are unprepared or underprepared for college level work. Furthermore, Johnstone, Ewell, and Paulson (2002) and Tagg (2003) note that the mission of institutions is to produce high-quality learning, not simply to provide instruction. To accomplish this, Lapovsky and Klinger (2008) suggest establishing and maintaining a culture of evidence; assessing and improving institutional performance; conducting competitive intelligence about for-profit and other providers; and operating in an environment characterized by quality, efficiency, and accountability. In order for such approaches to work, an institution needs to put in place a program of five components: (1) learning goals; (2) measures of student performance; (3) knowledge of how to achieve learning with the particular student population; (4) knowledge of options for increasing productivity; and (5) institution-wide support (King, Anderson, and Corrigan, 2003). Thus, there is a compelling need to find benchmarks against which to compare and improve programs, while still maintaining the fast-paced competition for adult learners (Bash, 2005).

At the outset of this chapter, we noted that changing demographics, expectations, competition, and accountability are among the conditions that are forcing post secondary institutions to rethink how-and to what extent-they serve their adult learner constituency. The approximately four thousand colleges and universities in the United States serve a vast market of learners, and the ability to be "all things to all people" becomes increasingly costly, potentially inefficient, and may lead to a dilution of effectiveness in other parts of an institution's overall mission (for example, research or civic engagement). Thus, the need to identify, clarify, and prioritize institutional actions is vital if important resource allocation decisions and investment in programs and initiatives are to occur with any reasonable degree of effectiveness. In determining the extent to which institutions are involved in education of adults, there are, undoubtedly, many outstanding issues that must be understood in order for support for adult learners to be realized.


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