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Multi-Phase Research Among Top-Performing Programs Establishes Evidence-Based Framework for Serving Adult Learners

INDIANAPOLIS – The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) today announced the completion of a modern Framework for serving adult learners. Using a five-phase project that began last year, CAEL developed the “Adult Learner Leaders for Institutional Effectiveness” Framework, or ALLIES Framework, to provide guidance on effectively meeting the needs of adult learners within today’s digitally dependent learning environment and challenging labor market. 

The complete report and executive summary describing the research findings and the Framework itself can be found at cael.org. In addition, survey and interview research on never-enrolled adults were captured in an auxiliary report, also available at cael.org. CAEL will also hold a webinar on October 13, 2022, when researchers involved in developing the Framework will share their findings and answer questions. 

“Educators and employers can’t succeed without each other, and adult learners are the critical link between them,” said Earl Buford, CAEL president. “Equitable economic mobility, career advancement, and healthy talent pipelines all depend on access to continual upskilling and reskilling opportunities, but our postsecondary systems often fall short in accommodating adult learners.”

To discern and delineate the most effective resources and strategies for serving adult learners, CAEL partnered with 10 high-performing programs that focus on adult learners and their unique needs. The study included higher education institutions as well as nontraditional education and training providers that prioritize adult degree completion and/or work-relevant training. Drawing on the evidence from these programs as well as other quantitative and qualitative research on adult learners and never-enrolled adults, CAEL identified evidence-based best practices and created the new ALLIES Framework, which any institution can use as a benchmark and template for building and optimizing its own programs. Advisors to the Framework research included the Education Quality Outcome Standards Board (EQOS) and Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy.

The new ALLIES Framework consists of three overarching concepts:

Data-Driven Planning
Institutions that effectively serve adult learners manage change and focus on continuous improvement with an explicit intention toward recruiting, educating, and graduating a diverse group of adult learners ready for the worlds of work and future study. Success in this early phase requires:

  • Student and labor market data that serve as evidence to support a planned institutional change to more effectively meet the needs of  adult learners.
  • An adult- and equity-focused strategic plan that guides institutions through change management strategies that lead toward equity in student enrollment, engagement, and success.
  • A culture of change and adaptivity across the institution that includes leadership, faculty, staff, and students in the processes of planning, guiding, and implementing an adult learner-serving program.

Organizational Capacity and Policy
Institutions that effectively serve adult learners continually revisit adult learner outcomes and labor market information to ensure that certificates and degrees offered align with local and regional demand — both on the part of the students and on the part of employers. Success in this middle phase requires:

  • Inclusive policies and governance that minimize barriers for adult learners and build processes that allow for credit for prior learning (CPL) and maximizing transfer credit.
  • Faculty/staff professional development that addresses gaps in knowledge and skills needed to effectively serve and educate working and adult learners, as well as design adult-friendly programs and services.
  • Impactful partnerships that create opportunities for working and adult learners to receive wraparound support, integrate academic and career pathways, and promote affordability through employer tuition assistance (ideally prepaid).

The Student Experience
An institution that effectively serves adult learners promotes adult learner success through well-evidenced best practices that improve their enrollment, completion, and post-completion outcomes. Through a climate of student support and equity, institutions can create an environment in which equity drives decisions and policy.

The themes that differentiate institutions that evidenced the most robust adult learner success outcomes include, but are not limited to:

  • Academic empowerment: In addition to flexibility of scheduling and rate of progression, adult learners are likely to come to postsecondary institutions with an expectation of validation for CPL. This empowers students to take ownership of their academic progress and integrate their learning around their lives.
  • Student support: As adult learners transition into a new program, institutions should be prepared to front-load enrollment and advising support to create proactive and effective onboarding strategies that empower learners who manage education, work, and family priorities. Such support should be well integrated throughout the program of study.
  • Career relevance and connections: Many adult learners come to postsecondary education to gain the knowledge and skills needed to successfully change or advance in their careers. Robust career advising, as well as experiential education, provide these learners opportunities to connect their educational experiences directly to their academic goals and personal and professional development. 
  • Affordable programs: It is no secret that affordability is a key element in the decision of an adult learner to pursue additional education or not. Fees associated with application, acceptance, coursework, and other hidden expenses can create barriers to access. Transparent, comprehensive, and flexible payment and finance policies, advising, and support increase access, especially for students of lower socioeconomic status.

“Adult learners come from diverse backgrounds and have diverse needs, and institutions need to be aware of this as they contemplate policy and build support systems,” said Barry Darnell, senior director of higher education initiatives for CAEL. “The Framework offers them evidence-tested guidance to help develop their own unique approaches, customized to the populations they serve. These approaches should enhance the learning journey with collaboration across institutional offices, internal support teams, and the learners themselves to meet the students where they are and guide them through their education.”

The research, development, and creation of the Framework were made possible by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Strada Education Network, and the Charles Koch Foundation.

CAEL’s Principles for Effectively Serving Adults have been restructured within the Framework, which will assume the Principles’ role of guiding postsecondary institutions and state systems committed to an inclusive model of education that meets the diverse needs of post-traditional learners amid ever-shifting education and employment landscapes. Although CAEL had periodically adjusted the Principles, they were primarily designed to help institutions support adult learners through diverse but traditional postsecondary education pathways. The new ALLIES Framework applies a change management process to guiding institutions in developing strategies and building capacity for serving adult learners.

About CAEL
Recognizing that adult learners are the backbone of the U.S. economy, CAEL helps forge a clear, viable connection between education and career success, providing solutions that promote sustainable and equitable economic growth. CAEL opens doors to opportunity in collaboration with workforce and economic developers; postsecondary educators; employers and industry groups; foundations and other mission-aligned organizations. By engaging with these stakeholders, we foster a culture of innovative, lifelong learning that helps individuals and their communities thrive. A membership organization established in 1974, CAEL is a part of Strada Collaborative, a mission-driven nonprofit. Learn more at cael.org and stradacollaborative.org.

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