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Four Trends in Higher Education Seen Throughout CAEL’s 2016 International Conference

Last week, more than 500 advocates for adult learners converged in Chicago for CAEL’s 2016 International Conference. Attended by those representing higher education, industry, government and non-profit sectors, participants shared the conviction that increasing access to higher education for adult learners is essential for the success of our country. With so many of the nation’s experts on higher education and adult learner success in attendance, it’s fitting that the most salient trends seen today in academia and industry were brought to the fore.    

Here are four trends in higher education that were prevalent at CAEL’s 2016 International Conference.

Higher Education and Workforce Development Can Unify

That this year’s conference was themed “Partners in Progress: Unite to Educate America's Workforce,” was proper given the divisive nature of the 2016 presidential election. Emotions running high following the election, attendees looked to conference speakers to share how equitable access to postsecondary education and an emphasis on workforce development can bring Americans together.

Dr. Daniel Greenstein, director of education, postsecondary success with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, opened the conference with a keynote that spoke to the importance of equitable access to higher education opportunities.

“My purpose is to re-excite and re-engage,” Greenstein told the audience.  “Higher education is something that will contribute to the nation’s success or lack of success.” Seeing the potential for bipartisan cooperation to help less-educated workers earn the education they need to gain meaningful employment, Greenstein opened the conference with optimism. “Moments of true transformation are about convergence.” 

In the plenary session “What do the Results of November's Election Mean for Adult Learners?” Lee Foley, president and managing partner at Capitol Hill Partners, and Bill Hoagland, senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center shared their thoughts on a topic of considerable interest for attendees. Echoing Greenstein’s sentiment in the opening plenary, Foley and Hoagland drew on the hope that partisan discourse could be put to rest to assuage discontent that the election shined a light upon.

“This is the opportunity to come together, to work together with the two sides,” said Hoagland. “Those running for election—two years, four years from now—want to produce, knowing that the American public doesn’t care about parties, as such; it’s job creation that’s the important factor.”

Partnerships are Key for Encouraging Adult Learner Success

In the closing panel of the conference, “The Working Learner: Business Champions Share Key Workplace Initiatives,” leaders from Business Champions shared their experiences helping employees gain access to upskilling and higher education opportunities.

Hilton Worldwide chief learning officer Kimo Kippen, Health Care Service Corporation vice president of human resources Mary Jo Burfeind and retired chief human resources officer of UPS Michael Johnson discussed how educational partnerships are essential to drive front-line workforce development.

Burfeind spoke about the mutual benefits of working with university partners that offer discounts and waivers, in addition to a unique partnership with John Wood Community College to provide a healthcare administration certification program.  

Kippen also noted the importance of developing partnerships with institutions of higher education, discussing his organization’s partnership with CAEL to provide all employees with a GED program and one to support high school completion.

Individual Student Experiences Are Worth Sharing

Michael Allan Bruce was named CAEL’s 2016 Learner of the Year in recognition for his persistence in overcoming adversity to receive his bachelor degree. Working toward his degree for 30 years, Bruce, an Iraq War veteran, completed his undergraduate education at Southern New Hampshire University this spring.

“I went to junior college after high school and had a hard time adjusting—there were simply too many distractions—and I was never comfortable in a classroom,” said Bruce. Yet, with the help of an advisor and support from his family, Bruce persevered.   

It’s clear from stories like Bruce’s and those of similar students shared at the conference that students’ individual experiences are valuable for better devising strategies to better serve adult learners. In roundtable discussions such as “Help Wanted: Providing the support adult students need to succeed academically and professionally” speakers highlighted specific challenges adult learners routinely overcome, stressing that the notion of the “traditional” student—and the generalizations about students that went with that notion—is a thing of that past.

Competency-Based and Prior Learning Programs Are Growing in Popularity

It’s long been understood among higher education advocates that a significant impediment to adult learner success is the time and financial expense needed for degree completion. That’s why CAEL has been a longtime advocate of competency-based education (CBE) and prior learning assessment (PLA) initiatives, which allow students to earn credit for knowledge and skills they already possess, increasing degree completion rates. Reflecting the continued belief that these programs are crucial, CAEL’s 2016 International Conference saw considerable focus on strategies and best practices to encourage their use at higher education institutions across the country.

Workshops and roundtables around these areas included:

  • Unique prior learning opportunities for veterans and those in health sciences education
  • Assessing experiential learning
  • CBE content creation
  • PLA in the context of community colleges
  • Developing a PLA implementation timeline
  • Employer and institution CBE collaboration opportunities

The future of adult learner success rests in the hands of the men and women who attended this year’s International Conference. While there’s no crystal ball that will show the exact direction institutions and employers will take to support adult learners, it’s clear that those who shared their insights last week have a firm idea of the shape of things to come.


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