Adult Learners Are the ‘New Normal’: Redesigning Initiatives With Adult Students in Mind
by Allymyr Atrero on Jan 10, 2024
As institutions of higher learning move beyond the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the labor market adjusts its needs, many statewide initiatives are shifting their focus to adult learners. Lorain County Community College (LCCC) is among many institutions leading the charge in reframing the college experience to be inclusive of them. According to its Vision 2025 initiative, the college aims to expand its engagement with “working-age adults,” preparing and connecting them to pathways to emerging and in-demand industries. Located in Elyria, Ohio, LCCC served 2,232 adult learners in fall 2022.
CAEL partnered with Lorain County Community College in 2019 and 2022 to deliver the Adult Learner 360 surveys as a way to benchmark their impact on the student experience. Almost one year later, two CAEL team members spoke with select representatives from LCCC to learn about data-driven decisions and lasting impressions made as a result of their surveys. The interview included Kelly Zelesnik (dean of engineering, business and technology), Cindy Kushner (director of school and community partnerships), Jonathan Dryden (provost/vice president for academic affairs and university partnership), Marisa Vernon White (vice president for enrollment management and student services), and Erika Fenik (director of institutional planning and engagement).
Adult Learner 360 Sparks Adult-Focused Surveys
Since the initial implementation of the Adult Learner 360 surveys, White shared about the institution’s intention to continue having adult learners at the forefront of LCCC’s survey process: “All of this work, together, has helped us look at some of those other research pieces here at the college.” LCCC now has a robust welcome survey that accounts for common characteristics present for adult students such as responsibilities to any dependents or their employment status. As financing became a priority that came out of the Adult Learner 360 results in 2019, the institution also administers a financial wellness survey that helps to identify possible financial strains for its students.
While LCCC administers surveys on a three-year cycle, as Fenik notes, the institution makes a conscious and continual effort to get a pulse of adult learner experiences, especially any student support services needed outside of the classroom. As a learning institution, Lorain County Community College strives to make surveying a part of its campus culture to encourage student participation in focus groups and its research agenda. Dryden also mentioned how this information influences change management at the institution and tells the story of its impact: “The survey is very helpful as a topic of conversation on campus to help drive change and in this case, also be able to show, ‘Look at the work you’ve done and how the students are responding as a result,’ so you know you’re making a difference.”
Lorain County’s Commitment to Work-based Learning
While LCCC was able to leverage the Adult Learner 360 results to make informed decisions about the front-end experience of adult learners, such as orientation and the first-year experience courses, the institution was also able to obtain a Title III grant to support building employer connections to its academic programs. For example, Lorain County Community College has worked to embed career development in its programs of study through the initiative called “Train Ohio.” Through working with employers, programs can identify areas of the curriculum where students are able to meet the learning outcomes through experiential learning outside of the classroom. Zelesnik indicated how they were able to block-schedule courses to integrate these opportunities: “Students can start working three days a week for an employer while taking classes two days a week full-time with us, so we keep the full-time component.” As a result, adult learners are able to gain employment in a field relevant to their area of study, allowing them to let go of “life-sustaining jobs” that may not contribute to their future career goals.
Moreover, Train Ohio, in tandem with Lorain County Community College’s Fast-Track programs, which are short-term training programs, allows employers to upskill their existing employees while paying them full-time. Kushner elaborated on how LCCC was able to work with employers to invest in their workforce: “The research was there, the support to students building the employer readiness and then the short term programs were already created so we can plug in and get them working and backfill with those gaps.” By recognizing adult student needs, Lorain County Community College is able to sustain an education-to-workforce ecosystem that benefits not only the students and employers but the workforce community as a whole.