Peer Review

Planning to Succeed: Meeting the Needs of Adult Students Today

It is no secret that the landscape of higher education is changing. In 1996, the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that more than 60 percent of students in US higher education met some or all of the criteria that would classify them as “nontraditional”—for instance, having delayed enrollment into postsecondary education, attending school part time, being financially independent of their parents, working full time while enrolled, having dependents other than a spouse, being a single parent, or lacking a standard high school diploma. Today, the numbers are even higher.

Many members of this growing demographic are adults who return to school, juggling the competing demands of jobs, families, and military or community responsibilities. They come to the classroom singularly focused and goal oriented, with specific outcomes in mind. Success, for them, may mean something different than it does for their younger, “traditional” counterparts. It may mean realizing the dream of graduating from college—after first postponing that dream for a decade or more. It may also mean entering a more lucrative or secure career field, completing a credential that is needed for advancement, or securing a brighter future for their children.

As provost of University of Maryland University College (UMUC), I enjoy a unique vantage point from which to observe and assess this shifting landscape. For more than sixty years, UMUC has embraced a unifying mission—that of providing quality educational opportunities to adult students in Maryland, across the country, and around the world. In that time, we have learned some valuable lessons by carefully attending to student feedback and educational outcomes.

Part-Time Students Require a Full-Time Commitment

If there is one universal truth about adult higher education, it is that serving adult students—and by that I mean partnering with them fully so that they have the greatest opportunity for success—takes more than a casual commitment. For an institution to truly succeed, its mission must inform all aspects of its operations, from its course delivery formats and scheduling to its curriculum, resources, student services, and more.

Common features of a more traditional campus—a required class that meets three mornings a week, for instance; a financial aid office that is only open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; an on-campus library that closes at 10 p.m.—can present insurmountable obstacles to a student with children and a full-time job.

Access is Everything

At UMUC, that realization has guided the university’s evolution across eight decades, and continues to do so today. Our online presence and worldwide footprint alone stand as a testimony to that fact, because—for adult students—it isn’t enough to know which degree they hope to earn and which courses they must complete to earn it. They must also be able to access those courses at times and places that fit their busy lives and schedules.

At UMUC, we have experimented with a variety of schedules and delivery methods over the decades—everything from old-fashioned “correspondence courses” to lectures delivered by closed-circuit television, voicemail, or e-mail. Our face-to-face courses are typically offered in the evening or on weekends, meeting either once a week or several times on an accelerated schedule, and at locations that are situated conveniently along commuter routes, on military bases, and near suburban centers.

Of course, with the advent of the Internet, online education has surged to an overwhelming level of popularity with adult students, and that is no surprise. Not only does online education offer unprecedented access, but—as explored in a recent meta-analysis by the US Department of Education—learning outcomes in online classrooms compare very favorably to those in traditional, face-to-face settings. At UMUC, a full 95 percent of our stateside students take at least one course online each year, with the university offering thirty-two undergraduate degrees and seventeen graduate degrees completely online.

Equally important, though, is how we have chosen to deliver classes online. While we are, on many levels, a high-tech university, we don’t chase the latest technological fads. Instead, we wait to integrate the latest technologies so as not to exclude those who don’t have access to the most powerful personal computers, the fastest Internet connections, or the latest software.

For similar reasons, our online courses are delivered asynchronously, which means that students need not be online at the same time as the instructor, teaching assistant, or fellow students. That allows an active-duty soldier stationed overseas to sign on late in the evening, if necessary, while a working parent can use his or her lunch hour to view online presentations, complete assignments, and participate in threaded online discussions, and perhaps sign on after work to review comments from classmates and feedback from the instructor.

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

Once adult students choose an institution and course of study, their next hurdle often involves determining exactly where they stand in terms of educational progress, and what coursework they will need to reach their education goals.

The typical UMUC student comes to the university after having attended five other postsecondary institutions, and 54 percent of students new to UMUC have already earned sixty credits. More than half transfer in after first attending a community college; often, they have been away from the classroom for some time. This is common of all adult students, and even if they have attended college in the past, they may not have declared a major, or they may have chosen courses haphazardly and interrupted their studies because they ran out of money, had to change jobs, joined the military and were deployed, had to attend to the birth of a child, or for any of a dozen other reasons.

What that means, of course—both for UMUC students and for adult students in general—is that “going back to school” often involves building on an earlier, incomplete foundation rather than starting from scratch. Nonetheless, some institutions refuse to accept transfer credit altogether, and many others rely on an outdated process that can take months to evaluate and transfer credit from other schools.

For adult students, that delay in transferring credits can come at a disastrous cost. They may waste tuition dollars paying for classes that are redundant, choose to postpone studies when time is of the essence, or enroll in classes that are beyond their level of preparation and—as a consequence—risk failure, discouragement, and additional (and unnecessary) expense.

With that in mind, UMUC has implemented an award-winning credit transfer system, which offers another example of how an institution focused on adult education is shaped, top to bottom, by the demands of its students. Our relatively new and still evolving system combines a large and growing database of more than 600,000 preevaluated courses from other accredited institutions with a document management system, workflows, and business processes involving faculty to streamline the evaluation of new transfer credit.

As a result, students can now determine very quickly how many credits they can transfer to UMUC and where they stand in their progress toward a degree. The system has helped reduce the wait time for transcript evaluations from several months to less than forty-eight hours and won a Leadership Recognition Award in 2010 from the IMS Global Learning Consortium, which works to advance technology that can affordably expand and improve educational participation and attainment. (In 2008, it also earned UMUC President Susan C. Aldridge a special invitation from the US Department of Education to showcase the system at the agency’s national summit in Chicago.)

But adults bring more than “book learning” to the classroom, and granting credit for college-level learning earned outside the classroom—on the job, in the military, working as a volunteer, or elsewhere—is also vital to meeting the needs of adult students. To me, it makes little sense that—upon returning to school—a successful entrepreneur would be required to study the rudiments of business management, or a seasoned military officer would be expected to revisit the basics of leadership or communication.

With that in mind, UMUC’s Prior Learning program is an established component of our curricular framework, allowing students to enroll in a structured program in which, under the guidance of a faculty member, they develop a detailed portfolio describing and demonstrating their competence in a given field or discipline. We follow the principles established by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), and while it is a challenging and time-consuming process, both for the student who develops the portfolio and the faculty member who reviews and evaluates it, Prior Learning program participation can ultimately yield as many as thirty credits that represent a dramatic savings for the student, both in terms of time to degree and reduced tuition. (The average number of credits awarded per student as a result of this process is about eighteen.)

Support and Resources Readily at Hand

While most adult students are accurately described as mature and motivated, it is also true that they often return to the classroom after an extended absence, unsure of their own capacity or preparation for college-level coursework. That very lack of confidence can represent an obstacle, and it is vital that an infrastructure of support and resources be readily available. In fact, adult students—when compared to their younger counterparts—are often less likely to ask for help when they need it most, concerned that they not be seen as unintelligent or unprepared, and it sometimes falls to the institution to provide necessary support before a student requests it.

At UMUC, we spend considerable time assessing student preparedness for college-level work, and we intervene early and aggressively if we determine that a student either lacks the recommended preliminary coursework or is failing to participate or contribute satisfactorily in a course. In addition, our internal research shows that we can positively affect both student persistence and student success with several other relatively simple approaches.

First, we offer UMUC 411—a free, weeklong orientation to online education that allows prospective students to familiarize themselves with WebTycho, our proprietary learning management system; to ask questions of UMUC faculty staff, alumni, and other prospective students; to submit practice assignments; to chat with Career Services, Library Services, and financial aid representatives; and to learn more about the MyUMUC student portal, through which they can easily track and manage their personal, financial, and academic records online.

Next, after they enroll, all undergraduate students are strongly encouraged and most are required to take EDCP 100: Principles and Strategies of Successful Learning. For students who have been away from the classroom, the online environment—though easily accessible and resource rich—can sometimes be daunting to navigate. EDCP 100 is a carefully structured course that reviews college-level research and study skills and offers in-depth tours of the university environment as a whole and of the vast research and resource materials available through Information and Library Services.

We provide other means of support as well. UMUC’s Effective Writing Center is available online. Writing center staff does not (and should not) rewrite papers or assignments, but in most cases they do offer forty-eight-hour turnaround on paper reviews, and offer coaching and detailed feedback on assignments.

Through Information and Library Services, students enjoy instant access to tens of thousands of book and more than one hundred online databases, many offering full-text journal, magazine, and newspaper articles. The library is available online twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, skilled research librarians are on staff and on call, and innovative bibliographic guides are available on many research topics, pulling together many of the seminal works in a given field.

Finally, although adult students flock to online coursework because of its flexibility, our research shows that many still wish for the social and community connections they might build in a face-to-face environment. With that in mind, UMUC offers a variety of programs to help students build the relationships and networks that will support them and help them succeed, both as students and as alumni.

For example, we sponsor an alumni mentor program through our Alumni Association, and graduates of the university contact new students soon after they enroll in their first course, offering guidance, encouragement, and support. Similarly, we offer dozens of online clubs, honor societies, and student associations where students can meet their peers and program directors, build relationships, take on leadership roles, and generally enrich their college experience.

Faculty and Coursework Tailored to Adult Students

Ultimately, of course, an educational institution is only as good as its faculty and curriculum, and at UMUC, we put significant resources into developing both. Teaching adult students—and teaching online—is different than teaching in a traditional, brick-and-mortar classroom, and all UMUC faculty undergo a mandatory five-week training program that familiarizes them with UMUC as a whole and with online teaching technologies and strategies. New faculty members are mentored by their more experienced peers, and their performance is monitored and assessed, based on our teaching expectations. Subsequent coaching can be arranged as necessary.

We also offer more than twenty online faculty development workshops, presenting a variety of topics related to online and adult education—everything from how to use Impatica (an application that allows Microsoft Powerpoint presentations to be played over the Internet, without plug-ins) to an overview of university policies and procedures, establishing standards of fair use, and learning to manage challenging students online. Faculty who complete the required coursework can earn a certificate in online education.

But student success isn’t only measured inside a classroom, and for adult students to truly succeed, an institution must offer a quality curriculum that delivers the learning outcomes that the workforce demands. It is not enough to simply adapt decades-old content for online delivery or an accelerated schedule.

At UMUC, courses are purposefully designed—learning objectives are expressed clearly, and readings and activities are carefully aligned and relevant, with constant input from workforce experts. Learning modules are designed that engage the student, and rather than relying on simple text exercises, they leverage the online environment and include simulations, exercises, and case studies with links to real-world events and results.

Our new master’s and bachelor’s degree programs in cybersecurity offer a relevant example. Designed in direct response to urgent workforce demand for trained professionals in a growing and vitally important field, UMUC developed a new curriculum with input and direct guidance from a committee of industry experts and thought-leaders from the highest ranks of business, government, and the military. And students who complete the program will graduate armed with the knowledge and skills necessary to enter leadership roles, ready to make an immediate impact in an exciting and dynamic field.

In short, they will be positioned to succeed—and that must be the ultimate goal of any institution that aims to serve the needs of adult students in the twenty-first century.


Greg von Lehman is the provost of the University of Maryland University College.

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