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CAEL Pathways Blog

Moving the Needle for Adult Learner Support Through Data-Driven Decisions

The Adult Learner 360 survey process has been around for over 20 years as different iterations of the diagnostic tool and is at the center of the work CAEL does for adult learners. The Adult Learner 360 aims to highlight an institution’s strengths and challenges through the analysis of two corresponding questionnaires focusing on adult learner satisfaction and institutional effectiveness of existing policies and programs impacting adult learners. Over the years, institutions have been able to leverage survey results to make quality improvements based on CAEL’s Ten Principles for Effectively Serving Adults. As CAEL prepares to launch a new version of the Adult Learner 360 addressing domains from the Adult Learner Leaders for Institutional Effectiveness (ALLIES) framework, released in 2022, CAEL staff members Allymyr Atrero and Kari Shafenberg met with three high-performing institutions who administered the surveys at least twice in the last five years to learn more about how they have benefited from the tool.

A Snapshot of Virginia Western Community College
Virginia Western Community College (VWCC) is a two-year institution located in Roanoke, Virginia serving the regions of Roanoke, Salem, Roanoke County, Craig County, Franklin County, and southern Botetourt County. The college has over 8,500 students in credit-bearing courses and more than 1,200 enrollments in fast-track workforce and continuing education courses. Out of those students, 2,592 identify as adult learners – for the purposes of the Adult Learner 360 surveys, VWCC determined adult learners to be 20 and older rather than the standard definition of 25 and older. 

The institution first implemented the Adult Learner 360 surveys in 2017 and subsequently administered the process in 2020 and 2023. While improvements were limited in 2020 as a result of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, Virginia Western Community College met or exceeded the median student satisfaction scores across all ten principles in 2023. Moreover, it showed notable improvements in the Outreach (+0.32), Life & Career Planning (+0.29), and Financing (+0.24) principles in 2023 in comparison to 2017 satisfaction scores. This is significant as the scores are on a scale of 1 to 5. Improvements in these principles reflect the progress made in accessibility to information relating to the enrollment process, credit for prior learning, career resources, and financial aid as a result of the VWCC's new approach to communications and additions to student support services.

Highlights from the Interview
During the interview process, CAEL higher education initiatives team members Allymyr Atrero and Kari Shafenberg spoke with Crystal Hall, Get REAL activity coordinator, and Shonny Cooke, manager of the Hall Associates Career Center at Virginia Western Community College. Below are key points taken from their AL 360 experience.

How did your institution initially become engaged with the AL360 process?
SC: We wanted to make sure that our college was conducive to adult learners and really change that conversation from focus on traditional, right-out-of-high school students to are we meeting the needs of our adult learners. That’s what birthed the application for the Get REAL grant (*Title III grant).

CH: Some of the information that actually went into the grant application was the information from the Adult Learner 360 in 2017. To be able to have that data to show the areas we need to grow was instrumental in being able to get the grant.

*Note: Title III grants are awarded to eligible institutions to expand their capacity to serve low-income students by providing funds to enhance the institution’s academic quality and resources. The Get REAL grant disbursed to VWCC is its initiative Refocus Education on Adult Learners (REAL) to help prepare adult learners to successfully navigate education to career pathways.

What influenced your institution’s decision to conduct the surveys multiple times?
CH: We want to be a data-driven institution, so we want to see how we’re doing. Are we moving in the right direction? Are the things that we’re doing making a difference? Are they moving the needle? COVID kind of hit us a bit like everybody else, but it’s nice to see in 2023 that we’ve rebounded and that these things are making a difference, people are responding well to them.

What policy or process changes were impacted by the Adult Learner 360 results?
CH: As a byproduct of the grant, it allowed us to get the funding to provide positions to help with the things that we saw in that survey that we actually needed. We’ve got a credit for prior learning specialist funded out of that grant. We’ve got an adult career advisor funding from the grant, as well a career affordability navigator. So all the things we saw as a need that came out of that first Adult Learner 360, those were some of the things we targeted in that grant. Having those staff members that focus on that and are able to take the lead on those issues has really propelled that growth.

SC: For me, it became clear that if we were going to assess students on certain criteria, the language that we use needs to be consistently applied across the institution. If we’re asking them about whether or not they feel like career planning was a goal or was promoted at the college, then from the first meeting with those students, we need to make sure that we’re talking about a career plan, that the career plan is part of the institutional experience … . This got us thinking about how we’re having those conversations with students. It’s changed how we think about the words that we use, the priorities that we assume our students have, and the priorities that they really do have for themselves that we need to better support.

CH: We actually put our adult learner needs in our strategic plan. Once those 2020 and 2017 results came in, we saw the need, and it became something our whole school decided to work on.

Do you have any plans for the future as a result of your current AL 360 results?
SC: What’s in the process right now is getting the approval for those screening questions to make sure that we’re routing students to the right support systems to help them be successful, and help them if that career goal is their ultimate objective after their education here. The experiential learning and those partnerships, creating access for those opportunities to adult learners, underrepresented, underserved students is going to take a lot more people at the table and institutional changes to really make sure all of our students can afford those opportunities. Lastly, many of our adult learners don’t identify as an adult learner. We need to use verbiage like “career transition,” “career advancement,” “returning to the workforce,” all these different identifiers that may resonate with adult learners as opposed to using the adult learner tagline all the time.

Is there any advice or takeaways you would like to share with an institution that may be implementing the Adult Learner 360 for the first time?
CH: Don’t do things just to do them. Just because something is trendy doesn’t mean that it's something your institution needs to do. Go straight to the source, and the Adult Learner 360 is a great way of doing it … . It’s really important to find out what our adult students feel like they need and how can we adjust what we’re doing to meet them where they are. Oftentimes people try to make a program that’s one size fits all and that doesn’t always work. 

SC: Don’t take those results personally. Look at it as a greater reflection of opportunities that we have to make a larger impact as a collective institution. In looking at those partnerships and the overlap, nothing happens in one department alone. This is a collaborative effort as student success isn’t just in the classroom, it’s that whole support system … . We can look at how can we work together to provide better opportunities and experiences for our students.

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