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CAEL Pathways Blog

Art Chickering and the Adult Learner Movement: Reflections on the Modern American College and Its Connection to CAEL's Work Today

October, 2020

Several years ago, I was responsible for planning a move of the office of The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL). As I waded through papers and books stored in the office to determine what should be packed and moved, I found a copy of The Modern American College by Art W. Chickering & Associates (1981). I had met "Chick", as he was often called, at a CAEL conference and decided to keep the book to read one day. Years later, when I was working on my doctorate, I started to dig into the book and was fascinated by its apparent influence on CAEL's philosophy and approach. With Art's recent passing, I thought it would be an appropriate time to share some of my musings about his book and how it relates to our work today. 

The History of the Adult Learner Movement and Where It is Now

CAEL began as the Cooperative Assessment of Experiential Learning Project with a validation study conducted by the Educational Testing Service from 1974-1977. CAEL was part of a larger movement at the time to consider the needs of adult learners. Morris Keeton, the first president of CAEL, was one of many who contributed articles to the book, The Modern American College. In the preface, Chickering argues that if colleges and universities 'are to play a significant role in meeting the nation's educational needs in the future, they cannot limit their concern to students who are between the ages of 18 and 25, white, middle-class, and academically skilled' (Chickering, 1981a, p. xxvii). Over the ensuing decades, CAEL expanded its work into the very heart of what Chickering and his fellow researchers envisioned as the 'modern' American college, particularly notions of a larger educational ecosystem, a focus on student learning rather than seat time, and a commitment to addressing adult learners and inequity

The Educational Ecosystem

In the introduction to The Modern American College, Chickering notes that in addition to thinking about the transformation of higher education to better serve adult learners, it is important to take into consideration 'the ability to continue learning on one's own' (Chickering, 1981b, p. 6).  Richard E. Peterson's article in that same book similarly highlights all the different places where learning occurs. He discusses how more adults were using 'nonschool sources of learning' than were attending colleges and universities (Peterson, 1981, p. 308). Over the years, CAEL expanded its work to employers and the workforce system specifically to begin to address these "non-school sources of learning", while also balancing the importance of the learning provided by colleges and universities. Peterson (1981) noted this quandary in his article, explaining that while associations and community organizations provided many opportunities for job training, they could not provide the in-depth study available at colleges, nor the degrees required to develop the autonomous lifelong learners our society needs (Peterson, 1981, p. 320-321). And yet, like today, Peterson also noted that political realities make it difficult to advocate for more public resources for purely intellectual goals.  Today, CAEL's work is focused on improving the link between learning and work: ensuring on the one hand that postsecondary learning has value to the individual learner and the labor market, and, on the other hand, that workforce education and training can lead to both employment and to further postsecondary learning and credentials. 

An Orientation Toward the Adult Learner

Even before online learning was a twinkle in someone's eye, adult learning supporters were focused on this issue. Chickering noted that educators had devoted most of their 'attention to providing a good education for college-age youth', even though participation by adults in college was growing, even then (Chickering, 1981c, p. 16). Of course, now it has exploded to the point where some even question if 'traditional' students are the norm at all. Chickering advocated for a focus on adult life stages and looking at the services and teaching practices in colleges and universities through a completely different lens (Chickering, 1981c). The colleagues he invited to contribute articles to The Modern American College decried the 'youth orientation' of colleges that looked down on faculty teaching part-time and evening classes (Peterson, 1981, p. 321), they talked about the value of correspondence learning that would not be tied to place or classroom (Tough, 1981, p. 302), and they spoke of modern students who would be 'more self-determined than their predecessors and who expect education to be continuous with their experience in the world off-campus' (Benezet, 1981, p. 707). 

There is little question that online education has opened the door to higher education for millions of adults. In 1981, 12 million students were enrolled in higher education, and very few were adults (Peterson, 1981, p. 307). Recent figures showed that 20 million students were enrolled and 8.1 million of them were over the age of 25 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2014). It has been important from the beginning that online learning - or distance learning - not result is students being left to learn completely on their own. CAEL has long advocated that learning requires constant feedback from faculty along the way, the development of a self-directed and driven mindset among students, and support to overcome the barriers of life and logistics many adult students face. The early supporters of adult learning also noted these needs. Another contributor to Chickering's book The Modern American College highlighted self-planned learning and providing learners with plenty of freedom, many options for learning (video, audio, books, etc.), and a lot of help along the way (Tough, 1981, p. 303). Peterson (1981) emphasized individualized learning programs where the faculty becomes not just a teacher, but a mentor. Jerry and Sally Gaff (1981) place it in the realm of a role-reversal, where faculty would expect challenges to their authority, and accept that they may also learn from the student's real-world experience in their subject area. This, in turn, would create the mutual respect needed to address the demands of life and integrate them into the learning process. It would encourage faculty to attach learning to the immediate goals of students, fostering the self-directed and driven mindset (Gaff & Gaff, 1981, p. 642-647). 

Adult Learners and Inequity

One of the most powerful themes in the articles in The Modern American College was the need to create significant change to address the inequities adults face. Chickering noted that the shift to a 'postindustrial society' would mean that education would more and more become the only means to access status, higher levels income, and opportunities for upward mobility (Chickering, 1981c, p. 17). At a CAEL conference, Mark Milliron once referred to higher education in America as insider trading, where the upper middle class and wealthy pass education, and therefore opportunity, on to their children, and those who are left out, remain left out (Milliron, 2017). Strada Education Network has conducted large scale research to highlight how higher education does not respond to the adult student 'consumer' when every other service sector does (Strada Education Network, 2020). This consumer orientation was also noted by early adult learner advocates who contributed to Chickering's book (Peterson, 1981, p. 324; Gaff & Gaff, 1981, p. 644). Back in 1981, Peterson noted that the high dropout rates among adult students would become a problem of major proportions as access increased (Peterson, 1981, p. 322), and indeed it has. One in five American adults has some college, but no degree (Lumina, 2016). These days some have noted the 'non-college going culture' that is currently growing in America began with the parents. These parents have often been disappointed by their own college experience or feel permanently left behind by a system they now view as hostile to their interests, damaging not just their future, but those of their children as well. Peterson talked of a dangerous 'class bias' in academia, with 'quality' questions sometimes becoming a means of oppression of adult-friendly programs, which only get attention when colleges face declining enrollments of 'regular' students (Peterson, 1981, p. 322-324). And Benezet notes that the problem has its roots in the very governance of higher education institutions, and that governance has become 'something done to people, not with people' (Benezet, 1981, p. 706), and that includes the important constituency of students, including adult students. Clearly, significant change is needed, at all levels, to really impact adult students. It is as true now as it was then: change is hard and change within higher education on behalf of adult learners is very, very hard.


I am inspired by my 'ancestors' in adult learning and especially by Art Chickering, who gathered many of those early ideas together in his seminal book. He and his associates created a vibrant movement that is still alive and well today. Since 1981, online learning and innovative colleges and universities have brought millions of adults into higher education. But there is much work to do. We are long overdue for a major change within higher education to better serve their adult students. With students over age 25 making up a significant portion of college students, small, isolated programs are no longer enough. We must do what is necessary to build a stronger movement and achieve large-scale change. 

Benezet, L. T. (1981). Governance. In A. W. Chickering & Associates (Eds.), The modern american college (pp. 706-720). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Chickering, A. W. (1981a). Preface. In A. W. Chickering & Associates (Eds.), The modern american college (pp. xxvii-xxxii). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Chickering, A. W. (1981b). Introduction. In A. W. Chickering & Associates (Eds.), The modern american college (pp. 1-11). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Chickering, A. W. (1981c). The life cycle. In A. W. Chickering & Associates (Eds.), The modern american college (pp. 16-50). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Gaff, J. G. & Gaff, S. S. (1981). Student-faculty relationships. In A. W. Chickering & Associates (Eds.), The modern american college (pp. 642-656). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Keeton, M. (1981). Assessing and credentialing prior experience. In A. W. Chickering & Associates (Eds.), The modern american college (pp. 631-641). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Lumina Foundation (2017). A stronger nation: Learning beyond high school builds american talent. Retrieved from http://strongernation.luminafoundation.org/report/2017/#nation

Milliron, M. (2017, November). Tomorrow-ready education: Preparing students for the challenges of today and the promise of tomorrow. Keynote presentation at annual conference of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, Coronado, CA.

National Center for Education Statistics (2014). Mobile digest of education statistics, 2014. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/mobile/Enrollment_DGI_College_Enrollment.aspx

Peterson R. E. (1981). Opportunities for adult learners. In A. W. Chickering & Associates (Eds.), The modern american college (pp. 306-327). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Tough, A. (1981). Interests of adult learners. In A. W. Chickering & Associates (Eds.), The modern american college (pp. 296-305). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

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