Adults make up a significant part of the online learning population – a recent study from The Learning House found that although “individuals of all ages participate in online education,” approximately 60% are 30 years old or older. These students are often adding academic studies to an already long list of responsibilities related to work and family, making program completion that much more challenging.
The U.S. Department of Education’s (USDOE) Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE) recently published a new guide that provides some insight into the support adult learners can and should expect as they move toward their goals. The Adult College Completion Tool Kit [PDF] addresses readiness and preparation of non-traditional students in higher education.
With a goal to “increase the number of graduates who earn high-quality degrees and certificates required to compete for good jobs in the 21st century global economy,” the USDOE recognizes three key areas in which institutions and local leaders can make a positive difference. While this new report is written for state administrators and local educators, providing suggested strategies for supporting adult learners, there are several important take-aways for students, too:
- Access: According to the guide, “adult learners often lack academic preparation (e.g., math, reading, and writing) and college readiness (e.g., time management and study strategies) skills, financial resources, and knowledge about financial aid and other available support.” Those considering higher education options should seek out college and career counseling in their local areas as part of the exploration and decision-making process. Oregon’s Career Pathways Roadmap is just one example of the resources provided at the state level. There are also web-based tools available for independent research, such as College Navigator and Student Aid on the Web.
- Quality: Being prepared and ready are also issues for instructors who need to develop the skills required for teaching adult learners. Accountability initiatives encourage institutions to support their instructors and students through the use of data in program decision-making, tracking systems to monitor student progress, and continued professional development training for instructors. This call for quality standards and reporting is echoed across the online learning industry with the development of program development guidelines such as those presented by the Sloan Consortium’s Quality Scorecard.
- Completion: Adult learners face many potential barriers to completing their academic programs and reaching their career goals. Through faculty development programs, innovative technologies, and partnerships with related services and potential employers, institutions can help students persist and graduate. Minnesota’s FastTRAC Initiative, Department of Veterans Affairs VetSuccess on Campus, and Portland State University’s Learner Web are three examples of programs working to encourage and support students via online and on-ground resources.
5 Steps to Prepare for College
In addition to a list of referenced websites and materials, roughly a third of the Adult College Completion Tool Kit document is dedicated to a series of appendices, which address the needs and concerns of specific groups of students – Adult Learners, Individuals in Corrections, Veterans, and Highly Skilled Immigrants.
These sections of the guide are written directly for these groups of prospective students and include five steps to get started with post-secondary education, with graduation and employment in mind. The Adult Learner appendix features the following:
- Get help from groups in your community. Local agencies, schools, and organizations provide guidance and skills assessment, as well as “helpful services, like transportation, childcare, and financial aid. If not, they can tell you where to find those services.”
- Create a plan for going to college and starting a career. “What do you want to learn in college? What kind of job would you like?” One-stop career and workforce centers, educational institutions, and websites such as MySkillsMyFuture.org help prospective learners develop their plans for moving forward.
- Earn your high school diploma. Classes and assessments are available to help prospective learners improve basic skills (i.e., reading, writing, math, technology) required for college-level learning, as well as meet the requirements to enter post-secondary education programs (i.e., GED, high school diploma).
- Choose and enroll in a college program. The process of finding a program that is a good fit for the individual learner is enhanced through conversations with college and career counselors. These professionals can present a variety of options (i.e., career and technical programs, community colleges, universities) and work with learners to set their priorities and make comparisons.
- Apply for financial aid. Students “can get help with paying for college from colleges, states, and the U.S. government.” A variety of websites and resources for counseling are available to help each learner determine which types of aid would be best for them and the programs they plan to pursue. Federal Student Aid is one of these resources and a good place to start the search for financial assistance.
These five steps are the same for each of the targeted groups of learners, and may seem simplified, but the resources provided are tailored to meet the needs of each population. This section of the document includes websites for specific agencies and groups, as well as instructions for access and suggestions for exploration and use in developing an individualized approach.
The authors acknowledge that users may be able to skip some steps, depending on the research and planning they may have already completed in the overall process.
Putting the Kit to Use
Students will find relevant links and information in this new report that go well beyond what colleges and universities typically provide. They aren’t a replacement for college websites, advisors, and counselors, but instead provide a helpful complement of resources to inform the decisions that surround school selection, learning support, and career planning.
State governments and local agencies are working together with academic institutions to help those who desire higher education to not only pursue this path, but also succeed in program completion. Find out more about the U.S. Department of Education’s commitment to adult learners by following them on Twitter: @usedgov, and becoming familiar with their resources focused on adult education and literacy, college accreditation, and college affordability and completion.
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