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CAEL Pathways Blog

Lifelong Learners: the Ultimate 'Transfer Students'

There has been recent discussion about the need for consistent, student-friendly policies for recognizing transfer students' prior college credit. Otherwise, there is a danger that students could lose a lot of the time and money already spent on learning. In fact, a GAO study found that 40 percent of college credits are lost in transfer.[1] To mitigate this, some institutions have made their transfer policies more generous. Some have amplified these measures by establishing articulation agreements that, as the article linked above suggests, can be further strengthened through a consortium model.

Efforts to smooth the transfer process are laudable. After all, the number of 'transfer in' students enrolled at postsecondary institutions increased more than 85 percent between 2006 and 2018[2]. What may not be fully understood, however, is who transfer students are and how institutions might need to address other policies and practices to better serve them.

Studies have shown that the average age of previously enrolled students is 42.[3] This means that most transfer students have not followed a straight path from high school to a college degree. Many are adult learners who have had other life experiences. Their postsecondary education may have been disrupted or delayed for a variety of reasons. Frequently, these involve workplace demands and family commitments. Life outside of the classroom doesn't slow down to accommodate what goes on inside it. These issues often are connected in ways that exacerbate the challenges of each. In the end, more and more learners must balance their education against other priorities.

For example, many are parents. More than 20 percent of all enrolled students, regardless of transfer status, have children. Nearly half of student parents also work full time. And almost half face child care costs along with that of their education - on average, nearly $500 per month. Unsurprisingly, student parents are much more likely to stop out (52 percent vs. 32 percent of students without children).[4] Also no surprise is the fact that nearly 70 percent of all students work while enrolled. In fact, it is within the working-learning dichotomy that we frame the two primary adult learner personas. One is the person who identifies first as a student but also works. The other is a worker who is also engaged in learning -- often in order to upskill in response to rapid, tech-driven changes to job demands. Ironically, although students may be working to help offset the costs of education, research shows that putting in more than 15 hours per week may hinder academic performance[5]. Yet 40 percent of students work twice that amount or more per week[6]. These are some of the major factors that affect the outcomes of so many adult learners.

But institutions have been sluggish to adapt their service models accordingly. Usually, it's simply a case of not understanding the needs that must be met to serve adult learners effectively. For example, a common challenge confronting adult learners is course availability. This can result from mismatches in scheduling and delivery. When online learning is offered, technological barriers may impede access for some adult learners. In other cases, institutions fail to connect and communicate meaningfully with them. Students who attend evening classes may be unaware of available support services. In some cases, they may be closed during times when adult learners are usually on campus.

Another potentially frustrating and demotivating obstacle adult learners encounter as they contemplate a return to the classroom is the disregard of their knowledge and skills. Institutions seeking to bolster enrollment and student outcomes can do so by ensuring that student success measures, such as articulation agreements, are part of an integrated, holistic philosophy of knowledge inclusivity. That means recognizing relevant prior learning that has taken place not just at other institutions but outside of the classroom as well - in the workplace, from military training, from life experiences. Some adult learners may be returning to the classroom for the first time in years or decades. Nevertheless, valuable learning occurs during those interims. Institutions create more value for their students when they can recognize both transfer credit and extra-institutional or experiential learning. The value of expanding policies for both transfer and PLA credit was part of the Joint Statement on the Transfer and Award of Credit by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, the American Council on Education, and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CAEL was part of an advisory group for this new statement on credit transfer).

Whenever colleges and universities reduce friction along educational pathways, both learners and the institutions that serve them benefit. Positive transfer experiences may occur among individual institutions, but they elevate the postsecondary landscape as a whole. Still, like any other student success resource, their impact is most effective when part of a broad complement of policies and procedures tailored to the needs of lifelong learners. That's why CAEL partners with colleges, universities, and postsecondary systems to help them assess and improve the continuum of adult learner touchpoints. Experiential learning is just one factor that determines whether learners succeed in navigating the proliferation of on- and off-ramps that mark the journey of lifelong learning. But in the era of the '60-year curriculum,' it's clear that learning no longer takes place under one roof.

For more information about how CAEL is partnering with postsecondary institutions, employers, governments, and workforce development agencies to remove obstacles in the connections between lifelong learning and meaningful work, contact cael@cael.org.


[1] https://www.gao.gov/assets/690/686530.pdf

[2] https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/TrendGenerator/app/trend-table/2/4?trending=row&valueCode=grand_total&rid=1&cid=2

[3] https://nscresearchcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/SCND_Report_2019.pdf

[4] https://www.gao.gov/assets/710/701002.pdf

[5] https://1gyhoq479ufd3yna29x7ubjn-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/Low-Income-Working-Learners-FR.pdf

[6] https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/Press-release-WorkingLearners__FINAL.pdf

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