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Conversations with George Pruitt

Last week we highlighted the work of George Pruitt, retiring president of Thomas Edison State College, former CAEL employee and Board member, and longtime advocate of innovating higher ed as a means of increasing access to higher learning.

In recognition of his congributions, Insider Higher Ed recently sat down with Pruitt to discuss the state of adult education. As a longtime innovator who has helped adult learners break through barriers standing in the way of their educational goals, Pruitt’s insight is enlightening and well worth a read.    

In April 2014, in honor of CAEL’s 40th anniversary, CAEL also spoke with Pruitt. In his interview, Pruitt shared his experiences in higher education and reflected on his work with CAEL in its formative years. The interview, published in CAEL’s Members-only Forum and News publication, reveals Pruitt’s thoughts on where adult learning has been and where it is headed. To read the full interview, click the button below.

CAEL's Conversation with George Pruitt


Excerpts from the 2014 interview with George Pruitt

What were the highlights for you of CAEL’s early years?

You don’t often get to be in the beginning of a movement, and CAEL really was a move­ment. Prior to CAEL coming to the scene, the expectation was that higher education was the exclusive purview of 18-year-olds. When adults came into the marketplace, they followed the GI Bill after WWII, and the expectation was that the veterans would go to college after the war and then leave. That didn’t happen; adults continued to come in larger and larger numbers. Adult students were disrupters, and traditional colleges didn’t know what to do with them. Adult learners were more consumerist, they had expectations about the quality of instruction and services they got. Many were paying their own way through veteran benefits or their own resources, and they were confronting a policy context that was designed for 18-year-olds and didn’t fit the needs of adults.

CAEL was at the forefront of a national move­ment because the notion that adults brought learning to the enterprise that was college level and college quality was a revolutionary idea. However, it is now widely accepted throughout higher education, and that would not have hap­pened without CAEL.

When CAEL started, the majority of students were 18 to 22 years old, and now the majority of students are over 25 and going part time. This is an important contribution to American higher education, and it was led by CAEL.

You have been president of Thomas Edison State College since 1982—more than 30 years. How have the challenges facing adult learners changed over the past 30 years? And what challenges are the same?

Thomas Edison State College (TESC) is an institution that was born out of the same move­ment that created CAEL. There was a series of Carnegie Commission reports in the 1960s that talked about traditional education and the need to create a policy context exclusively for adults. Out of that work, several institutions were founded with the mission of solely serv­ing adults—Thomas Edison was one such insti­tution. We built ourselves around the two pri­mary characteristics of our clients. First, adult students bring considerable learning to the enterprise, and we should be able to recognize this learning by awarding credit with a valid, reliable assessment technique. Second, adults have barriers of time and place, and they can’t put their lives on hold to sit in a classroom three mornings a week.

We had to figure out how to serve students where they were instead of where we were. All of the processes we started were asynchro­nous in that there was no time requirement; our students could be anywhere and study with us. One of the most powerful tools arrived in the 80s when the technology became available to do what we eventually called distance educa­tion. In the 80s, it was video. In the 90s, com­puter courses and online learning emerged. When one of your problems is how to serve learners where they are instead of where you are, this technology is enormously empower­ing. TESC jumped in with both feet. We were one of the pioneers of distance education and still one of the premiere exemplars of how to do it well.

We also have felt an obligation to maintain our contribution to a field that we estab­lished. Back when CAEL expanded its focus to workforce development, TESC wanted to make sure there was a robust source of faculty training for PLA. TESC created the National Institute on the Assessment of Adult Learning. We have it every summer in cooper­ation with CAEL. We assemble faculty from all over the country with some of the best fac­ulty available to participate. Morris was one of the founding faculty members of this insti­tute, along with some very important people in early CAEL.

The question of “Is College Worth It?” lately seems to be a topic for a lot of higher educa­tion stories making the news. In your opinion, why is a college degree worth the investment? Are there important reasons beyond those related to employment?

Someone did a survey of college graduates five years after graduation on the value of the experience. The overwhelming response was that it was a very high value; that it was worth the money; and that if they had to do it over again, they would. There is a disconnect between the people that go through education and the media and politicians that attack education. If you look at our customers, they are very satisfied with what they did and feel that it was a worthwhile investment. There is a problem with the public narrative, and it’s trou­bling and destructive.

The vocationalizing of higher education is a mistake. It’s true that high capacity people will out-perform and out­-earn low capacity people, and higher education is the capacity building engine of the country. While federal data indicate that earnings are higher and the unemployment rate is lower for people who have high levels of education, it is important to acknowledge that earning a col­lege degree does not automatically mean you will command a higher salary or get a promo­tion. To expect an 18-year-old to decide what they are going to do for the rest of their life is idiotic. Most students change majors two or three times, and most learning that takes place in college, as far as content, will be obsolete or forgotten five years after the students are out of school. The purpose of education is to build the capacity of learners and the capacity of citizens, and that’s how it should be measured.

There needs to be a candid discussion about saving public K–12 education, and not just in the urban areas: the data that I’m citing is national. This isn’t about the inner city, it’s about everybody. Higher education has to try to figure out what to do with smart kids that are totally unprepared. It’s not about jobs—the stakes go way beyond jobs.


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