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A Community of Promising Practices: CAEL's Adult Learner Academy

Improving equity in postsecondary education is all about centering effective resources on underserved student populations. But institutions face limited resources, staffing, and, in many cases, specialized know-how for effectively serving “nontraditional” students. 

CAEL’s Adult Learner Academy is a platform where “cohorts of the willing” become force multipliers of their own success. In addition to sharing real-time best practices, Academy institutions benefit from CAEL’s expertise and technical assistance in serving adult learners. Program support available to Academy institutions includes the Adult Learner 360 diagnostic tool, which is built on the Adult Learner Leaders for Institutional Effectiveness, or ALLIES Framework.


A Community of Practice: United by Common Challenges, Motivated by Shared Opportunity

While awareness is growing of how serving new-traditional students is important to social mobility and economic equity, institutional capacity for meeting the needs of underserved populations is still in its early stages. The Academy combines CAEL’s experience and expertise with the motivational benefits of mission-driven collaboration to help cohort institutions join forces and develop specific, measurable, and continuous improvement plans for serving adult learner populations. Guided by Adult Learner 360 surveys, technical assistance, professional development, and other resources and tools, the Academy cultivates a supportive community of practice during each three-year cohort, with continuous guidance and accountability mechanisms available throughout.


Meeting Students Where They Are To Get Your Institution Where It Needs To Be

Each Academy is guided through the development of a data-driven, adult learner-focused continuous improvement plan. Academy cohorts culminate in the review and dissemination of institutional metrics on adult learners and case studies about their change implementation over the course of the project.

Core Academy activities include:

Joining an Academy Cohort (Apply Phase)

Where multiple institutions or systems participate, they may form an academy based on:

  • Geography
  • Institutional type
  • Accrediting body
  • Minority-Serving Institution (MSI) status (e.g., HSI)
  • Veteran-serving
  • Programs by industry
Assessment of Goals and Service Gaps (Diagnose Phase)

Academies use CAEL’s Adult Learner 360 diagnostic tool to identify areas for improving services to the adult learner at participating institutions. The Adult Learner 360 process applies both a student and an institutional survey in this process.  The student survey is designed to measure adult learner satisfaction with an institution’s support in principles and areas that are important to adult learners. The gap analysis enabled by these parallel surveys adds unique value to CAEL’s Academy model. Adult Learner 360 surveys measure institutional effectiveness based on CAEL’s Ten Principles for Effectively Serving Adults, which form the foundation of our assessment tools and provide a framework for excellence in supporting adult learners.

Development of Action Plans (Plan Phase)

Based on Adult Learner 360 findings, CAEL holds meetings with each institution’s team to identify critical areas for improvement and possible interventions. Academy partners work with the team to build an implementation plan with specific timelines and deliverables.

For the interventions, the action plans draw on CAEL and its partners’ services and expertise available through the Academy. CAEL offers a menu of options in advising, career services/links to industry, PLA, assessment, professional development, marketing to and support systems for targeted students, etc. Additional subject matter experts may be enlisted as needed.

Assist Institutions With Interventions (Incent and Support Phases)

Cohort institutions then begin to implement changes in policy and practice, based on their implementation plans. Throughout this process, CAEL continues to provide advising, program support, and technical assistance to ensure that they are staying on schedule with their implementation. These activities aimed at accountability are critical for ensuring successful implementation and achievement of project objectives.

In addition to the work with each individual institution, the project partners convene the participating institutions each year. In the first year, the convening/summit focuses on establishing strong relationships among the institutions so that there is trust in sharing details of their experiences in making needed changes for serving adult learners. The convenings include activities for the participants to share their progress, troubleshoot challenges with each other, and provide each other feedback on their implementation plans and works in progress.

Support for Research on Outcomes and Impact (Evaluate Phase)

There are both short-term and long-term objectives for the Academy:

  1. The short-term objective of the Academy is to examine how cohort institutions are serving the needs of targeted adult learners at their institutions, and to promote sustainable change in the models and support systems for them.

  2. The expected longer-term impact is that these changes will contribute to measurable improvements in key metrics such as enrollment, credit-earning, persistence, and degree/credential completion. Note: while enrollment is not usually counted as a student “outcome,” some participating institutions whose students skew younger may view it as an important impact goal; these institutions may want to expand their capacity to recruit and serve adult learners in the workforce in need of upskilling or reskilling, for example.

What Gets Measured Gets Improved

All institutions participating in the project are asked to examine the following key impact measures over time, beginning with two to three years prior to the project start:

  • Enrollment of targeted student population.
  • Credit earning: all adult students and targeted student population.
  • Successful course completion: all adult students and targeted population.
  • Persistence (continued enrollment, year to year).
  • Degree completion (recognizing that this outcome may be realized beyond the cohort’s three-year horizon).

Ultimate Outcomes: Maximized Learning

CAEL provides a final report for each Academy cohort. The report includes case studies on each institution. Case studies feature an analysis of the changes the institutions undertook through their participation in the Academy, along with the progress the institutions made in achieving measurable results that lead to greater impact. Combined, these case studies provide a library of models and best practices on serving adult learners. These resources are published and shared with other institutions challenged with creating sustainable and scalable change on their campuses.

Philanthropic foundations and other mission-aligned funders wishing to support the nonprofit work of the academies can contact us at cael@cael.org.

"The first two years of the grant have provided an opportunity for Daley College to ‘build the infrastructure’ and foundation to support our adult learners’ transition into credit and workforce programs. This work will be put into action in year three of the grant and will have a significant long-term impact in meeting our access and equity goals for all of our students."
Erika de la Riva

Assistant Director - Research & Planning, Corpus Christi IDN Project Leader, President's Office
Richard J. Daley College

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If your institution or organization is seeking guidance, solutions, or support from CAEL, or if you have an idea for a future collaboration initiative with us, please reach out. We'd love to connect.