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CAEL Learner of the Year Featured in Strada Education Adult Learner Public Viewpoint Webinar Panel

Earlier this month, Strada Education Network hosted a webinar that was particularly close to our heart. For one, it was exclusively for CAEL members. And it featured 2020 CAEL Learner of the Year Alphur “Slim” Willock

Not only did Slim overcome multiple barriers in his pursuit of higher learning, he earned multiple degrees doing so. Slim is a telecommunications associate with Verizon Wireless. You can read more about his story here.

Slim was joined by Tunisha Miles, a member of the Air Force Reserves and a partnerships specialist at Excelsior College, a CAEL institutional member. As stellar “real world” examples of what it’s like to pursue postsecondary learning amid life’s many other demands, Slim and Stella shared personal insights to complement the webinar’s compelling data. Culled from survey results, they revealed trends in motivations, barriers, and expectations around adult learner enrollment in postsecondary education.

Tying it all together were Dave Clayton, senior vice president, and Nichole Torpey-Saboe, director of research, from the Strada Center for Education Consumer Insights. Discussion focused on how Strada’s Public Viewpoint findings related to Slim’s and Tunisha’s own experiences in pursuing postsecondary education. 

Public Viewpoint is a recurring survey of 1,000 American adults launched in April to measure the effect of the pandemic on individuals’ careers. The webinar also incorporated findings from the Strada-Gallup Education Consumer Survey and the Aspiring Adult Learner Survey. Results were compiled from respondents with the following characteristics:

  • Age 25-44
  • Had not completed a college degree of any type (neither two- nor four-year) 
  • Indicated they were “seriously considering or planning to enroll in additional education.”

Discussion started with the sobering statistics now all-too familiar amid the pandemic crisis. Six in ten employed Americans are worried they will lose their job. Half of Americans have lost work or income because of the pandemic. 

Because the study data showed that 60 percent of respondents had been interested in postsecondary education when they left high school, it’s apparent that their desire for more education has been a persistent one. At the same time, this is more evidence that detours confront many in their pursuit of postsecondary learning.

Despite their interest in returning to education, many respondents did not have the greatest expectations toward it. Only a third described their most recent educational experience as a positive one. For many, this last experience was a postsecondary one. Most (two thirds) of those harboring a negative impression had been previously enrolled in college at some point.

In terms of how the COVID-19 crisis is affecting the decision to continue their education, data reviewed during the webinar showed that interest has grown. When asked if they were more or less likely to enroll in education because of the pandemic, 42 percent of respondents indicated they were more likely. Overall, a quarter reported it was likely that they would enroll in an education or training program within six months.

In another sign of ongoing economic and labor market turmoil, the percentage of respondents who were motivated to pursue additional education to pay bills or take care of immediate needs doubled year over year, from 16 percent to 33 percent. This desire for education with a near-term impact also is echoed in what type of credentials respondents are favoring. In 2019, the split was 50-50, nondegree vs. degree. In 2020, 68 percent of respondents indicated an interest in nondegree credentials.

At the same time, the overall confidence in the value of education has dropped among adults without degrees. In 2019, 37 percent agreed that additional education would be worth the cost. In 2020, that percentage has dropped to 18. Meanwhile, more than half felt that additional education would make them a more appealing job candidate in 2019. Only a quarter felt that way this year.

When examining variables that might affect how adult learners feel about investing in education, the webinar found a strong majority (74 percent) of respondents reported that time/logistics would be extremely or very challenging. More than half (56 percent) said the same of self-doubt, placing this even above the familiar hurdle of cost (51 percent) in importance. The data suggest that this lack of confidence may arise from a lack of understanding. Fewer than one third of respondents said they “understood very well” the following:

  • The most valuable skills I should develop through education and training.
  • Length of time to complete an education program.
  • The cost of tuition, books, and other expenses.
  • Financial aid, scholarships, or loans.
  • Career paths that fit my strengths.

This uncertainty underscores the substantial potential of helping adult learners navigate educational choices and clarifying links between learning and work. The demand for such support also is clear in survey responses, ranked below, to “What would increase your confidence in the value of education?” 

  1. Partnerships between employers and education or training programs.
  2. Additional support to help you be successful in classes.
  3. Work-based learning opportunities (such as apprenticeships and internships).
  4. Education or training that develops skills that local employers want.
  5. Help identifying the most valuable skills you could develop through education and training.
  6. Help identifying pathways between education and careers that fit your strengths.

During the panel discussion, which included questions from CAEL members, Slim and Tunisha offered several accounts of their own lifelong learning experiences that echoed the survey findings. They also offered some advice and observations for fellow adult learners and postsecondary institutions who seek to better serve them. Below is a summary:

For institutions

  • Recognize prior learning, from previous academic credits to military training to work experience. 
  • Encourage strong mentors and advisors. Although great mentors come from all walks of life, including friends and family, they can make a big impact within institutions as well. They can help point learners in the direction they want to go, even pushing them out of their comfort zone and encouraging them to achieve their full potential (and overcome self-doubt).
  • Smaller class sizes make it easier for instructors to connect with learners and support them where they are in life.
  • Institutions should improve orientation resources. Use data to help connect where students want to be (in terms of an occupation they find rewarding) and the learning path that will create the “perfect fit.”
  • Institutions that want to attract students should make it easy for prospective learners to see themselves there. They should be mindful of the demographics they are featuring in their marketing materials and ensure they include nontraditional students. 
  • Many adult learners are interested in institutional programs and other activities, but many of these only occur during the day. Institutions should be more mindful of demands outside of the classroom and flexible with schedules.
  • Have a strong career center. Students often have the attitude of “Ok I have my degree, so are you going to help me get a job?" While this might not be feasible, providing resources to help them up their odds certainly is. These could include help developing resume-writing and interview skills. 

For adult learners

  • A small start can lead to big things. A few courses or a certificate might be what is needed for career progression. That’s also a way to create a positive learning experience that can build into a traditional degree, if that’s what’s best for the individual circumstance. 
  • Research, research, research. What works for one student might not for others. Adult learners should begin with the end in mind, asking themselves what it is they want and focusing on the ultimate goal. If that’s not in place, returning to school can be all the more difficult.
  • You’re never too old to go back to school. Tunisha says she often shares a story about her mother with the adult learners she serves today. Her mother, who went back to college when Tunisha did, completed her undergraduate and graduate programs first, which only served as motivation for Tunisha. She shares this with students to emphasize that age difference doesn’t matter.
  • Sometimes, self-doubt is adult learners getting in our own way. “We make time to do the stuff that we want to do.” Clarifying your priorities can help dissolve the doubt. 
  • Speak to family because they will be your support system. Make arrangements with them. For example, certain days or times each week might be set aside for uninterrupted study work.
  • Don't give up. Embrace your natural interest in learning, don’t put so much pressure on yourself, and have fun!

For information on becoming a CAEL member, visit our membership page.

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