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Higher ed is changing. Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer and Chronicle veteran, connects you with the people, trends, and ideas that are reshaping it. Delivered on Wednesdays.

November 4, 2020

From: Goldie Blumenstyk

Subject: The Edge: Whoever the Winners Are, These Adult-Student Priorities Should Be High on the Agenda

I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Now more than ever, adult students should be front and center.

But first … we’re finishing up this week’s issue of The Edge on Tuesday evening, Eastern time, long before all the voting has even been completed. If you’re wondering how weird it feels to write a higher-ed newsletter not knowing if, when you read this, we’ll know whether the country decided to re-elect a president who has undermined science, driven away international students, threatened academic freedom, and tried to punish institutions that teach about structural racism, the answer is simple: very.

Weirdness aside, let’s get to it. Because no matter who is president, the social and economic imperatives for colleges to serve older students — offering them convenient, affordable academic programs — have never been more compelling.

Millions of people have been put out of work by the pandemic, and countless others have had their studies interrupted by financial or health emergencies in their families. Economic dislocations have also hastened many industries’ pace of automation by as much as five years, which means that millions more people — who were just getting by in low-wage, “noncollege” service jobs — could be forced out of the labor market by 2025 without additional education, according to an analysis by the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonprofit group that works to improve public education. (The board estimates that 30 percent of all work across the South could be automated in five years, and 34 percent across the entire country.)

As for colleges that aren’t already committed to serving adults, the pre-existing demographic cliff will mean fewer traditional-age students in the population by 2026. So yeah, focusing on adults right about now makes good sense.

But what does that entail? Honestly, nothing too different from what was on the table three years ago, when I was researching and writing “The Adult Student” report. Yet now, momentum is building toward some solutions. Two areas where I’m seeing the most attention from colleges, higher-ed groups, and policy shops are: smoother transfer pathways and helping  students develop the right skills to pursue rewarding careers.

Meanwhile, two more fronts where more work will be needed are: on-ramps — entry and re-entry — for women who’ve left the work force because of the pandemic and reaching Hispanic, Black, and Native American prospective students over the age of 24. Those groups enrolled at much lower rates this fall than in 2019.

And it’s also worth taking note of a fifth topic, the free-college movement, where older students aren’t yet getting their due, at least according to a new analysis by Education Trust. Its new report found that 14 of of 23 active free- college programs exclude adult and returning students, while others have age or participation restrictions that effectively do the same thing. Just two states have designed programs with adults and returning students in mind.

Here I’ll focus on the two main adult-student topics that are — and should remain — on the agenda.

Transfer. This issue is finally getting the attention it deserves, most visibly with the American Council on Education’s task force on transfer, which has been publishing studies periodically and is expected to issue its final recommendations in 2021. Separately, a new “call to action” issued last week by more than two dozen colleges and associations amounts to a mini-manifesto to “lower artificial boundaries” that have caused more than half of all bachelor’s-degree graduatesto lose credits when they switch colleges. Among several suggested policy changes from the group, known as the Scaling Partners Network: more state and institutional aid for transfer students.

Why now? Well for one thing, the Covid-19 crisis is likely to trigger even more transfers, the report notes: “An unprecedented number of college closures, mergers, realignments, and budget cuts will cause students to seek alternative options because the institution they originally attended no longer exists or has ceased to offer a desired program, extracurricular activity, or support services.”

Related to returning and transfer students, this also seems like a good time to revisit how colleges grant academic credit for what students already know. Many colleges still resist that practice, but perhaps a new study on “prior learning assessment” (PLA) will change some minds. The study looked at academic records of more than 200,000 older students and found that PLA led to a 17-percent increase in completion rates. While the practice can save time and money, the study shows that low-income and Black students aren’t using it as much as their peers, and suggests that institutions “focus more intentionally” on broadening participation. That study, “The PLA Boost,” is by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning and the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education. And I’d be remiss if I failed to mention “Improving the Transfer Handoff,” a report by my colleague Katherine Mangan highlighting strategies to better connect community-college students with four-year institutions.

Upskilling and reskilling. Those terms might be annoying, but get used to them. They’ll become ubiquitous over the next couple of years as new coalitions like SkillUp and the Reskilling and Recovery Network put forward proposals for introducing dislocated workers to traditional and nontraditional educational opportunities that can get them into a job with a sustaining wage — or better yet, a real career path.

Likewise, expect to hear a lot more from colleges and others about short-term and nondegree programs — and alternative ways to pay for them, like the Learning Opportunity Credits idea recently highlighted (via Brookings) by the education professors Richard Arum of the University of California at Irvine and Mitchell L. Stevens of Stanford University. In a nutshell, they propose federally funded credits for unemployed and low-income adults to use for specially approved low-cost programs in online or hybrid formats.

New players? More short-term credentials? All in all, it’s a confusing landscape. So I was glad to see groups like the National Governors Association and an organization called WorkCred spotlighting how states can better assess the quality of nondegree credentials. Appropriately enough, their new report on the subject is “Understanding Quality: The Role of States in Supporting Quality Non-Degree Credentials.”

That kind of scrutiny will be crucial in the years ahead. Not to mention careful attention from colleges themselves that the short-term credentials they’re offering are stepping stones to further education. The idea is to expand career opportunities, not build dead ends.

Join our virtual forum on Thursday about bringing the remote university together.

Some small colleges are getting through Covid-19 by essentially putting a bubble around themselves. For larger institutions, that’s not possible. What have leaders learned about how to manage academics, IT, facilities, and research during this difficult time? I’ll be digging into that question with Elizabeth Bejar, vice president for academic and student affairs at Florida International University; Melody (Dee) Childs, chief information officer at Texas A&M University; and Jean Morrison, provost of Boston University, on Thursday, November 5. Sign up here to watch live, at 2 p.m. Eastern time, and pose questions to the panel. Or watch later on demand.

And oh yeah, the voting may be over, but Covid-19 is still with us. So #MaskUp.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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The veteran reporter Goldie Blumenstyk writes a weekly newsletter, The Edge, about the people, ideas, and trends changing higher education. Find her on Twitter @GoldieStandard. She is also the author of the bestselling book American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know.