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CAEL Pathways Blog

CAEL Annual Membership Survey Points to Promising Trends, Areas of Opportunity in Adult Learning

Late last year, CAEL completed its annual membership survey. The primary purpose of the survey, which captured responses from more than 100 CAEL colleges and universities around the country, was to learn more about the needs and experiences of CAEL's postsecondary members. However, with topics that include credit for prior learning (CPL), other programs important for adult learner success, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the survey also lends insight about trends that are important to all practitioners of adult learning.

In a positive sign for enrollment and the future growth of adult learner programs, nearly half (42%) of respondents indicated an increase in adult learner enrollment over the past year, with 29% reporting no change. Moreover, 96% of respondents reported the presence of some form of adult learning program at their institution. Overall, the majority (59%) of survey respondents worked at an institution boasting a longstanding adult learning program. About a quarter (26%) reported that adult learning programs had been present for at least a few years, while 11% said their institution was still designing or had only just begun to implement such programs.

More than three quarters of the respondents indicated their institution offered certificate programs. Fewer than a third reported offering stackable credentials (29%), apprenticeships (19%), badges (18%), or bootcamps (12%).

However, an overwhelming majority (88%) said their institution offered a CPL program. By a large margin, respondents felt that CPL was a critical resource. This was true even among respondents from institutions that lacked CPL. More than three quarters of respondents from both CPL and non-CPL institutions (76% of each group) agreed that CPL was "extremely" or "very" important.

'This is good, but unsurprising, news, considering the commitment our members have for supporting adult learners,' said Christine Carpenter, senior vice president of engagement for CAEL. 'With their support, we are working to transform CPL from higher ed's 'best kept secret' to a resource that fulfills its rich potential to drive equitable student success.'  

Although the use of CPL was widespread, so were challenges affecting it. Only 35% of respondents felt that their CPL programs were extremely or very effective. In response to a question about what was lacking or not working about CPL programs, a lack of support or dedicated staff was the top deficiency (39%) reported. Twenty-four percent of respondents thought that better options or other program improvements were needed. Marketing, awareness, or a lack of understanding limited CPL programs, according to 21% of survey takers. When asked what has prevented the successful implementation of CPL at their institution, a plurality (35%) identified a lack of staffing resources. Twenty-two percent reported an absence of support from faculty. However, only 6% felt that a lack of buy-in from institutional leadership was an obstacle.

A slim majority (52%) of respondents said that adult learning programming modalities had adjusted at the institutions in response to the pandemic. 'This likely reflects that online programs, which are mainstays of adult learning, were well-established elements prior to the pandemic for many of our institutions,' said Carpenter.

However, nearly half (47%) reported adopting new ways of thinking about adult learning because of the pandemic. In a positive development, 44% said their institutions had enhanced adult learner initiatives and strategies, although only a third (32%) said that special funding for adult learners had been utilized.

'These findings provide important insight from our postsecondary members and help inform the strategies we pursue with our workforce members and the broader community to align learning and work in a way that sustains equitable economic mobility,' said Carpenter.

The survey results join other findings in indicating silver linings have emerged amid the widespread turmoil of the pandemic. As awareness grows about the importance of serving adult learners, CAEL is working to ensure that CPL is top of mind. Recently, it launched a grass roots effort to increase awareness and use of CPL, which has profound but untapped potential for traditionally underserved students. The campaign includes free resources to help institutions launch or enhance CPL programs. More information is available at cael.org.

Details about the bulk of the survey's scope, which covered membership feedback and how they are helping to shape CAEL's strategic priorities, were shared during a recent webinar, which is available in CAEL's member portal.  For more information on CAEL membership, visit CAEL's membership page or contact marketing@cael.org.

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