Old policies little help to new wave of college students
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From lush green quads to ivy-covered lecture halls, the image of “college” conjures up, for many of us, fond memories of our own educational experience. But for most of today’s students, this vision of a traditional college experience is something glimpsed from afar, if at all.  

Adult learners cobble together their educational experience using a combination of online, evening, and off-campus courses. They pursue degrees and credentials that are often not found in the “core undergraduate experience” that remains the standard for most institutions.  


Unfortunately, the framework for higher education policy in the U.S. is still largely based on a model of the university (and student) that was more relevant over 50 years ago, when the first Higher Education Act was passed in 1965. For the U.S. to compete in the global economy, modernizing higher education policy to reflect the new reality of adult learners is imperative. 


The statistics are overwhelming, and they demand our attention. According to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, of today’s 18 million undergraduates, only 15 percent are traditional learners — those who take a full course load at a four-year college and who live on campus immediately following high school graduation.

In contrast, 14.9 million working parents, veterans and military personnel, caregivers, and others — a staggering 85 percent of Americans enrolled in higher education — are also attending college. These contemporary students struggle to balance the competing demands of work, family, and education.   

This trend is accelerating. Between 2000 and 2014, the percentage of college students over the age of 25 rose more than 30 percent. Today, more than one-third of college students are over the age of 25 according to the National Center for Education.  

Millions of Americans are working jobs that don’t fulfill their potential or economic needs because they don’t have the necessary training, credentials, or degree. Many have little or no postsecondary experience because the pressures of work and family prevent them from attending school or impede their progress once they start.  

They are often from low income families, and they are disproportionately underserved populations. In other words, those most in need of college credentials are the least able to access institutions of higher education because of financial, institutional, or policy roadblocks that hinder adult learners or deny them financial aid for innovative and modern approaches to learning. 

Expanding access and opportunity for adult learners will be more important than ever if our country is to remain competitive. According to the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce, 65 percent of all jobs will require a college degree or postsecondary credential by 2020.  

This reality poses a daunting math problem. The current pipeline of traditional-age students is simply not large enough to meet our national requirements. If our country’s employers don’t have access to skilled labor, it will be difficult to remain competitive on the international stage.

Expanding opportunities for adult learners is not only a potential solution to this formidable challenge, it is also an obvious and compelling solution. The time has come to ensure that adult learners have access to the programs and resources they need to succeed.  

For this reason, four organizations dedicated to serving adult learners have come together to form the National Adult Learner Coalition (NALC). The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), the Presidents’ Forum, and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) have long focused on the mission of serving adult learners.  

We have joined forces to amplify our individual voices, and, together, build a sustainable advocacy agenda. In doing so, the NALC fills a void in the higher education policy establishment, which, until now, lacked a unified voice representing the adult learner and the institutions and programs that serve them.

We aim to modernize federal education and workforce policy to reflect the profound demographic shift in today’s students, and to educate stakeholders on the value and needs of adult learners and innovative ways to serve them. In addition, we will mobilize colleges and universities, employers, public policymakers, and other stakeholders to advance the adult learner. 

The coalition is working to increase awareness and support for innovative approaches, such as Competency-Based Education and the Prior Learning Assessment, that give learners credit for knowledge and skills they already have, which can have a tremendous impact helping adults earn credentials and degrees much more quickly and inexpensively.  

The coalition recently unveiled a white paper, “Strengthening America’s Economy by Expanding Educational Opportunities for Working Adults,” which discusses key obstacles for adult learners, including confusing or incomplete information, the patchwork of regulations they and institutions of higher learning face and the need for more flexible and effective educational offerings.

The needs of adult learners can no longer be an afterthought; something to be acknowledged only after the “core” needs of first-time, full-time residential students are met. It is time to revisit a 20th-century model of higher education that no longer serves the purposes of our students, our institutions, or our nation. 


Dr. Robert J. Hansen has served as chief executive officer of UPCEA since September 2010. Hansen previously served as associate provost for university outreach at the University of Southern Maine, a regional public university located in Portland, Maine. 

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