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Our New Framework for Serving Adult Learners Is Built to Support Programs at Any Level of Development

As a leader in the field of adult education, CAEL developed its Ten Principles for Effectively Serving Adults in the 1990s to serve as a benchmark for institutions. As the world changes and evolves, and to ensure that these principles remain sound for the twenty-first century, CAEL and its partners conducted extensive research over the course of 8 months, including deep dives into 10 CAEL-identified high-performing programs, interviews with 19 adult learners across 6 institutions, a qualitative study of 29 adults who chose not to enroll in a postsecondary institution, and a national survey of more than 2,000 adults who have never enrolled in a postsecondary program. Results from these efforts reinforced elements previously identified in the 10 Principles, while also uncovering additional areas of opportunity and focus for institutions to better support their adult learners via a New Framework for Creating Adult Learner Leaders for Institutional Effectiveness.

Through analysis of the research results, several themes emerged, which are structured in this framework into three levels: Data-Driven Planning, Organizational Capacity and Policy, and the Student Experience. These concepts require a climate of student support and equity to thrive. Institutions that strive to create a supportive environment, in which equity drives decisions and policy, can center these themes in their direct engagement with adult learners. 

Relying heavily on data as a determiner of success and progress, institutions can ensure programs and credentials equitably and effectively lift their adult learners to meet their goals. This is a difficult, but not impossible task. However, institutions must think strategically about their organizational structures and policy implementation, including fostering a culture of change and building strategic partnerships in their community with employers, workforce boards, industry, alumni, and other institutions. These partnerships provide the opportunity for various forms of experiential learning, enhanced student support, and the validation and work relevance of credentials.

The leadership and practitioners completing this work must be empowered to create and maintain policies that maximize quality, adaptability, and accessibility, using their expertise, experience, and commitment to their students. Adult learners in these institutions have high expectations for support structure and wraparound services. These students are often balancing external responsibilities and expectations on their time and budget and seek institutions that are affordable and provide career-relevant training and credentials.

The primary construct of this framework is centering the adult learner in institutional decision making, ultimately creating a structure that supports equity and success through adaptability and focus on the student experience. This approach, supported by research, led to development of the three levels: Data-Driven Planning, Organizational Capacity and Policy, and the Student Experience, as well as recurring themes woven throughout the overall framework. These themes of affordability; career connections and relevance; academic empowerment; student support; and diversity, equity, and inclusion appear in multiple ways throughout the levels.

Adult learners, though often already employed while seeking their credentials, benefit in multiple ways from engagement with institutional career services and support structures. They value institutions that provide them the right guidance with career advising, learning that directly applies to their profession, and career-relevant experiences. Students who are attending school while working full time have unique challenges that their institutions can help alleviate, or provide additional support for to bolster their students’ chances of success. Forging partnerships with local employers, engaging with workforce boards, and providing alumni networking opportunities equip adult learners with the tools to develop professionally, during their program and beyond.

As adult learner enrollment continues to grow across the country, institutions must recognize that the structures built exclusively to support young adults directly from high school no longer apply. With this framework, any adult learning program can build a comprehensive approach to centering the student and making strategic policy decisions that serve their adult students effectively.

You can download the ALLIES Framework at cael.org.

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