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In the discourse on diversity in colleges and universities in the United States, an often-neglected population is nontraditional adult learners. This article explores this invisible aspect of undergraduate diversity, and addresses how competence-based education, which focuses on demonstrating the actual ability to do, is an innovative approach that caters to adult learners’ life phase and learning needs. College arguably is a youth-centric phase of life generally designed for the younger student. However, the stereotypical full-time student who lives on campus is actually a small percentage of the entire postsecondary population. Due to the demands of an increasingly competitive world of work, nontraditional adult learners will continue to seek out postsecondary education. Unfortunately, the credit hour system is a significant barrier for both entry and success of adult learners. Merits of competence-based education are discussed, and implications are provided to best meet this significant component of student diversity. Keywords diversity, nontraditional, adult, competence-based education, credit hour Over the past 15 years, the undergraduate student population An important population of student diversity that is often in degree-granting postsecondary institutions of higher learn- neglected in postsecondary education, however, is nontradi- ing in the United States has seen significant growth in diver- tional adult learners (NALs) even though they represent sity. In 2013, there were just under 17.5 million total approximately 38.2% of the postsecondary population in the undergraduate students, represented by approximately 56.6% United States (National Center for Education Statistics, Caucasian, 16.4% Hispanic, 14.3% African American, 6.1% 2009). NALs, usually defined as aged 25 and over, also Asian/Pacific Islander, .85% Native American/Alaskan include those under 25 but who have characteristics indica- Native, 2.9% multiracial, and 2.8% nonresident alien stu- tive of adult responsibilities, such as working full-time, dents (Snyder & Dillow, 2015). As a point of comparison, in being financially dependent, has nonspousal dependents, is a 2001, 67.6% of students were Caucasian, 11.6% were single parent, as well as having a nontraditional educational African American, 9.8% were Hispanic, 6.4% were Asian/ trajectory, such as delayed enrollment into higher education Pacific Islander, 1% were American Indian/Alaskan Native, or did not complete high school (Horn, 1996). Given these and 3.5% were nonresident alien (Snyder, 2005). In terms of characteristics, the majority of students in undergraduate the overall U.S. population, U.S. Census projections indicate programs can be classified as nontraditional, suggesting that that the general population will continue to increase in diver- the traditional student, who enrolls full-time and lives on sity, and by 2060 the percentage of Caucasians will represent campus, is now actually the exception rather than the norm 43.6% of the population, down from 62.2% as of 2014 (Choy, 2002), even though they, the traditional student, argu- (Colby & Ortman, 2015). In 2044, the United States is pro- ably receive the vast majority of attention and resources from jected to become a “majority minority” (Colby & Ortman, colleges and universities. 2015, p. 9) nation, where the total percentage of minorities will exceed the Caucasian population. With the total under- graduate population projected to increase by about 37% to DePaul University, Chicago, IL, USA. just less than 24 million students by 2022 (Hussar & Bailey, Corresponding Author: 2014), the increasing racial/ethnic diversity in the United Joseph C. Chen, School for New Learning, DePaul University, Chicago, IL States will invariably continue to impact the diversity on col- 60604-2201, USA. lege and university campuses across the country. Email: email@example.com Creative Commons CC BY: This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License (http://www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/) which permits any use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access pages (https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/open-access-at-sage). 2 SAGE Open The purpose of this article is to take the position that the NALs are largely invisible to higher education, especially presence of NALs on campuses across the United States is a first-tier universities (Coulter & Mandell, 2012). An diversity issue by bringing attention to decision-makers American Council for Education (ACE) survey found that within higher education that certain postsecondary education over 40% of institutions indicated that they “did not identify systems and structures actively serve as barriers to entry and older adult students for purposes of outreach, programs and impediments to teaching practices that can benefit their services, or financial aid” (Lakin, Mullane, & Robinson, learning. While the literature on adult learning theory and 2008, p. 12). When they do, the prevailing view of adult adult education is quite robust, the translation of these schol- learners is that they are “one-dimensional” (Lakin, 2009, p. arship areas into actual education administration and subse- 40) focused predominantly on lifelong learning. The assump- quent teaching practice is quite limited (Cruce & Hillman, tion in this perspective is that learning is an ancillary activity 2012). NALs are “often treated as ‘charity’ cases to be res- implying less urgency or need. However, adult students seek cued from ignorance” (Northedge, 2003, p. 17), and this sec- higher education for a multitude of reasons related to retire- ondary student status is problematic because it continues to ment, career change, and career retooling (DiSilvestro, 2013; perpetuate limited progress in meeting their educational Yankelovich, 2005). Overall, there is a paucity of research needs. The result is often a patronizing learning atmosphere and data on NALs (Cruce & Hillman, 2011) and what has that is acutely experienced by NALs when they step onto been conducted has mainly been descriptive analyses in pol- college and university campuses (Kasworm, 2010). I will icy reports (Irvine & Kevan, 2017). Between 1990 and 2003, explore the importance and implications of framing NALs as only 1% of articles in seven widely circulated peer-reviewed a distinctive issue of diversity, and discuss the value of a higher education journals focused on adult learners competence-based approach for teaching this significant yet (Donaldson & Townsend, 2007). Given the dearth of large- invisible and neglected student population. scale research and multivariate analyses, higher education institutions have had little data to even consider institution- side changes to address their needs. NALs as a Neglected Component of As a point of comparison, colleges and universities have Diversity in Higher Education admirably made institution-side changes to address or increase diversity of traditional students on their campuses The success of the American higher education system in through two major strategies. First, on the domestic front, achieving the broad range of postsecondary outcomes can colleges and universities have increased their efforts to largely be attributed to the diversity present in the system. The attract and retain students from different socioeconomic ability to provide access for both traditional and nontraditional backgrounds through the elimination of barriers that may students and all levels of academic achievement represents an American success unseen in virtually any other nation. (M. preclude diverse students to apply or enroll. One particular Harris, 2013, p. 54) strategy that attempts to eliminate application barriers is the test optional admissions criteria whereby students have the A significant strength of the American higher education option to withhold ACT and SAT scores; standardized col- system (Morphew, 2009), institutional diversity as an “ideo- lege admissions examinations are not a requirement for logical pillar” (Birnbaum, 1983, p. ix), has allowed postsec- admissions. Currently, over 850 colleges and universities ondary institutions to more effectively serve a diverse student have test optional criteria (FairTest, 2016). Research on the population and their needs; it has both afforded opportunities effectiveness of this criteria have been mixed with some to those historically underserved as well as removed barriers research indicating that increased diversity has not been a to both access and entry. Institutional diversity provides an consistent outcome (Belasco, Rosinger, & Hearn, 2015) to important basis for colleges and universities to make deci- other data showing that those who do not submit scores tend sions that both increase and accommodate a diverse student to be first generation students, students of color, Pell grant population. It provides opportunity for institution-side recipients, and students with learning differences (Hiss & change, rooted in institutional self-assessment of their own Franks, 2014). Another strategy to increase diversity is best student-readiness, instead of overly focusing on college- encapsulated by Texas House Bill 588, which is also known readiness of students, or the preparation of potential students as the “Top 10% Rule” (Cullen, Long, & Reback, 2013). In to fit and meet the demands and culture of postsecondary this legislative bill, the top 10% of students in each high education (White, 2016). Evaluating college-readiness of school in the State of Texas receives automatic admissions to students, while needed, runs the risk of blaming students all state-funded institutions. While some have applauded this when they do not fit the academic culture. Evaluating institu- bill by recognizing the connection between diversity and tional student-readiness, however, allows institutions to socioeconomic status, critics have argued that the bill review systemic processes that may interfere or prevent stu- unfairly punishes qualified students from high-performing dent entry and success. It can even uncover institutional high schools, but who are not in the top 10% (Heilig, biases, implicit or explicit, that relate to potential practices Reddick, Hamilton, & Dietz, 2010). Lastly, a small number that disadvantage specific student populations. of selective institutions have attempted to remove financial Chen 3 barriers by offering free tuition for admitted students with Youth-Centricity as an Institutional family incomes less than a specific amount, such as recent Barrier for NALs proposals to offer free tuition for community colleges The lack of a diversity perspective and the square-peg-in- (Cubberly, 2015). Overall, these well-intended efforts are round-hole view of NALs are rooted in the historic youth- designed to actively address barriers for qualifying and/or centricity of postsecondary education. College is generally potentially qualifying students, especially those from less known as a phase of life for young persons, and a milestone resourced backgrounds. for those leaving adolescents and entering into young adult- Second, on the international front, colleges and universi- hood (Kasworm, 2005, 2010). Developmentally, late adoles- ties have increased their outreach to international students. cence/young adulthood is understood as a time to solidify an From 2005 to 2013, colleges and universities experienced a identity while also developing intimate relationships 64% increase in the international student population with (Erikson, 1968). Therefore, it is not surprising that based representation from all around the world, but with particular upon these psychological stages of development, colleges influx from Asian and Middle Eastern countries, which rep- and universities have often been seen as an important part of resented around 58% of the total current international stu- youth maturation, with significant resources deployed to dent population (Institute of International Education, 2016b). support the well-being and transition of these students. With These efforts are partially to grow their international reputa- both domestic and international diversity represented, along tions and partially an economic one: International students with progressive social movements that are giving voice to pay full tuition, and in 2011 they contributed more than $30.5 previously invisible populations such as those who identify billion to the U.S. economy (Institute of International as LGBTIQ, as well as a diverse range of spiritual and reli- Education, 2016a). International students are an increasingly gious backgrounds, colleges and universities have attempted important part of the higher education economy, and they to accommodate the range of lifestyles within the late adoles- will likely continue to grow in presence on campuses across cent life phase represented on campuses in three main ways. the country. First, colleges and universities have focused on physical The two major strategies represent some important insti- structures to both house and offer different spaces to increase tution-side shifts in postsecondary education that has the quality of life for students. In 2014, colleges and universi- resulted in opening new channels of entry for both domestic ties spent over $12 billion on construction, 78.8% of which and international traditional students. The problem as it were new constructions (Abramson, 2015). For buildings relates to NALs, however, is that these strategies have little completed in 2014/2015, approximately 60.8% were related impact or relevance to them. With estimates of adult learn- to facilities typically related to supporting the lifestyles of the ers projected to grow at a rate faster compared with the traditional-age student such as residential housing and physi- traditional late adolescent student for the foreseeable future cal education/athletics. Second, social programs assisting in (National Center for Education Statistics, 2009), it is vital the sociocultural development and adjustment of diverse stu- for colleges and universities to recognize and cater to this dents encourage formal and informal student organizations to aspect of student diversity. With projections indicating that develop community and friendships, which include the notion 63% of jobs in the future will require at least a bachelor’s of safe spaces, physical places for cultural and other under- degree (Carnivale, Smith, & Strohl, 2010) and that the represented groups to congregate and develop community in United States needs at least 106 million Americans to have safety (Pittman, 1994). Third, colleges and universities have some postsecondary credentials for jobs by 2025 (Sherman needed to reexamine curriculum and its delivery. Curricular & Klein-Collins, 2015), the demand for postsecondary edu- changes include knowledge and skills for the modern era cation will increasingly attract an older student population including environmental sustainability (Vincent & Focht, that is qualitatively, developmentally, and socially very dif- 2009), civic engagement (Adelman, Ewell, Gaston, & ferent from the traditional-age, late adolescent undergradu- Schneider, 2014), information technology literacy (Jarson, ate student. As the need arises for more collegiate-level 2010), and even multicultural and diversity training. Delivery learning across the lifespan to meet the demands of work- changes include the growth in online courses and programs, place settings, a well-educated workforce requires institu- electronic learning management systems, and more mobile tions of higher learning to embrace this aspect of diversity and technologically focused solutions. as an economic and national necessity (Jones, Mortimer, & With the exception of education delivery changes, such as Sathre, 2007). The heterogeneity of both the NAL popula- online learning, the aforementioned accommodations have a tion and their learning needs demands that postsecondary distinctly youth-centric feel, which are often significant bar- education view them through a diversity perspective to riers to NALs for engagement in postsecondary education. engage institution-side changes. If not, postsecondary insti- Traditional-aged students have held and continue to hold a tutions will continue to view NALs as the “proverbial privileged position within postsecondary education as repre- ‘square peg’ that meets resistance when forced to go sented by these institution-side changes. Frankly, there is through a round hole” that has been designed for the tradi- uneven support for students based on age and life stage. Past tional student (Hagedorn, 2005, p. 22). 4 SAGE Open research has found that the traditional youth-centric environ- with familial roles and work roles. NALs typically experi- ment has socially and educationally often been hostile or ence what is known as role strain (Goode, 1960), which is nonresponsive to adult learners (Kasworm, 2005), which experiencing difficulty in meeting the demands of separate perpetuates the feelings of difference and nonacceptance in life roles. Roles strain is further subdivided into role conflict, higher education (Kasworm, 2010; Reay, 2002). NALs are role overload, and role contagion. Role conflict occurs when not attracted to youth-centric lifestyle-based resources on meeting the demands of multiple roles interfere with each campus and, in fact, these resources can confirm their feel- other. Role overload occurs when there is a lack of resources ings of alienation and isolation as college students. to the demands of a role. Role contagion occurs when preoc- Not only does institutional youth-centricity negatively cupation with one role while being engaged in another. When impact academic entry and learning success, services that NALs decide to add on a student role, this is another variable actually help NALs engage with academics are increasingly that adds to their experience of role strain. being cut. Estimates suggest that there are approximately 4.8 NALs’ engagement with higher education is impacted by million college students who are parents. Over the past 10 to the intersection of role strain and life stressors. Commitment 15 years, however, colleges and universities that have day- to the student role, which conflicts with other roles (Padulla, care centers have steadily decreased (Eckerson et al., 2016), 1994), has been found to be a significant predictor of psycho- even though research has shown that student parents who logical distress (Chartrand, 1990), and especially detrimental have access to childcare are not only more likely to return to is that stress impacting work identity is the strongest predictor school but are also three times more likely to graduate. While of well-being (Giancola, Grawitch, & Borchert, 2009). Simply modern residential halls and athletic facilities are “nice to put, the greater level of distress that interferes with the student haves” for traditional-age students, adult services like child- role, the greater likelihood of disengagement with postsecond- care or after business hours administrative services are ary education. Indeed, NALs’ work-based identity is one that essential to NALs academic success. is most likely to be non-negotiable, and they have very little control over it. The demands of a job or a manager tend to push other identities aside. When NALs compare their strug- The NAL gles to the traditional-age student, the perception of difference To meet the learning needs of NALs, it is necessary to under- was related to thoughts of withdrawing (Markle, 2015). When stand the nature of their diversity, who they are, and why stress related to adult role conflict arises, NALs feel isolated they decide to enroll. Compared to traditional students, who from what they feel is a youth-centric environment that does primarily perceive their identity as students, NALs primarily not understand them or attempt to accommodate them. perceive their identities as employees (Wirt et al., 2002), and it is through this identity in which they evaluate and priori- The Role of Self-Direction tize higher learning. For the traditional-age student who enters college shortly after high school graduation, their To cater to NALs’ diversity, educators and practitioners must identities have revolved around being a student. While many understand the difference between pedagogy, “the science and may have held part-time jobs and may have been involved art of teaching children” (Knowles, 1980, p. 43), from andra- with organizations that were not befitting of a student role, gogy, or “the science and art of teaching adults” (p. 43). most of their time was spent as a student, and this primary Catering to adult learning needs requires understanding some identity moves with them to college. NALs, however, spend basic assumptions about adult learners that are distinct from the majority if not all of their current time out of the educa- the late adolescent student. Whereas pedagogy is educator- tional setting, and mostly in employment settings. It is dependent (i.e., the educator is central to the learning process through this employment-based identity rooted in adult life and students are dependent upon the expertise of the educa- responsibility in which they seek postsecondary education. tor), andragogy is learner-dependent (i.e., the learner is central Their unique diversity revolves around three general charac- to the learning process and the educator is a partner). There are teristics: the role of adult identity, the role of self-direction, six key assumptions about adult learners (Knowles, 1980): and the role of life experience. 1. Self-concept: Adults desire becoming more self- directed and independent The Role of Adult Identity 2. Experience: Adult brings life experiences into learn- One of the primary reasons that NALs struggle with postsec- ing situations, which can enhance or prevent ondary education is the competing nature of their life roles learning that accompany adulthood. While they may seek educational 3. Readiness to learn depends on need: Life situations opportunities to advance their career identities, which may determine the need and readiness to learn ultimately have a positive impact on their role as a caregiver 4. Problem-centered focus: Immediate application of in the long-term, the commitment and effort needed in the learning is essential, especially to solve a relevant short-term in adopting a student role often comes in conflict problem Chen 5 5. Internal motivation: These are motivations that are In using life experiences as a major medium for learning, personally meaningful and more influential academic knowledge moves quickly from something theo- 6. The need to know why they are learning something: retical to something that is tangible and relevant. Adults need to see the relevance of the learning Understanding and perceptions of experiences are often deep-set, yet untested or evaluated. Within an academic Inherent in these assumptions about adult learners is the learning environment, these perspectives are challenged personalization of learning, and the importance of learning when NALs interact with other students, many of whom may both in terms of practical utility and personal meaning. These share different experiences and interpretations of experi- assumptions fit with their developmental life phase and their ences. Known as perspective transformation (Mezirow, work-based identity, which demands that NALs take initia- 2009), NALs often engage in a process of learning that tive and hold responsibility for their life outcomes. includes both cognitive as well as emotional change due to At the root of the concept of andragogy is self-directed disorienting events that highlights the subjectivity of their learning, which is a foundational tenet of adult learning theo- perspectives. This type of learning can be highly uncomfort- ries (Merriam, 2001). Self-directed learning is able yet extremely powerful because students begin to under- stand that their perceptions are shaped by sociocultural a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without forces. Perspective transformation occurs when NALs the help of others, in diagnosing their needs, formulating engage in critical reflection, which aims to uncover biases in learning goals, identifying human and material resources for worldview. This type of learning is accelerated within a learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning social context as issues related to race, class, and gender strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes. (Knowles, 1975, enter the learning process and understanding of experience p. 18) (Cranton & Taylor, 2012). Importantly, this type of learning develops consciousness related to hegemonic worldviews Self-directed learning and andragogy are important perspec- (Brookfield, 2000; Freire, 1970). NALs realize that their per- tives in understanding adult learning because it follows a ception and understanding of their experiences is situated long tradition of defining the purpose of learning for adults: within their personal social context. Therefore, they come to that education is necessary for a changing world and a funda- understand that others have different yet equally valid per- mental skill crucial to the life of every adult citizen (Knowles, ceptions. NALs then experience less rigidity and more flex- 1975). Adult learning was founded partially upon the view ibility in their thinking. that education is a medium for citizenry and a vital compo- nent of both self-betterment and societal progress (Dewey, 1916, 1938). Education is vital for becoming a competent Competence-Based Education (CBE): A Diversity- and active adult and citizen, and a significant portion of the Affirming Approach to Adult Learning ability to do so is to improve one’s economic stability. NALs Given the unique diversity that NALs bring to postsecondary are unlikely to stay committed to their schooling if they can- education, CBE is a model of learning that is particularly not justify it with outcomes that will improve or better their well-suited for them. It is defined as a learning structure that life situation, which ultimately becomes an issue of econom- is flexible and focused on mastery of academic content ics (Cruce & Hillman, 2011). regardless of time, place, or pace of learning (Porter & Reilly, 2014). This type of education is distinct from traditional The Role of Experience and Social Context approaches that dominate the postsecondary education land- Whereas the traditional student is more impressionable and scape because it is not tied to assigning college credit by seat has limited life experiences, NALs are not “blank slates” time (i.e., actual time spent in a classroom), and, instead, pro- (Nelken, 2009, p. 183) and they enter learning situations vides students with personalized learning opportunities with with significant life experiences, often accompanied with various ways to earn college credit, including blended learn- strong opinions and perspectives. This implies that adult ing, project- and community-based learning, prior learning learners do not fit the student-as-vessel learning model typi- assessments, and independent learning. It focuses on the cally ascribed to postsecondary education where knowledge actual demonstration of skills learned. Learning within a is poured into them as receptive and empty vessels (Freire, competence-based framework entails both the development 1970). While such top-down, educator-as-expert approaches and demonstration of new, improved learning, or the may developmentally fit with the younger learner, NALs are expanded ability to do (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, more engaged with learning when their experiences are 2007). Especially important in competence-based frame- included and used as a major media for learning (Chen, works is the ability to adapt learning to a variety of situations 2014). Importantly, NALs seek to derive meaning from their and challenges (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005), which happens educational experiences especially as they relate to their life to be a necessary and vital attribute for employment success histories (Nelken, 2009). (Eichinger & Lombardo, 2004). CBE approaches fits well 6 SAGE Open with NALs’ learning needs due to its academic flexibility as 2006). As a result, employers have expressed their dissatis- well as its conceptual alignment with the demands and pro- faction with the preparation of college students for the cesses within the world of work. CBE approaches have been workplace (Hart Research Associates, 2010). in existence since the 1970s but have exploded in popularity Thus, while the credit hour as a means of educational over the past few years with more than 600 postsecondary assessment for credit is (a) not being used as its intended institutes offering CBE or planning to do so (Tate & Klein- function and (b) has not been found to predict academic suc- Collins, 2015). cess, it continues to be the de facto framework for colleges and universities and is perhaps the most significant systemic barrier for NALs to engage with postsecondary education. The Problem With the Traditional Credit Hour Because missing a certain amount of class time typically Higher education has long focused on the credit hour as the results in automatic failure, and given work, family, and standard bearer for whether students have met requirements other adult responsibilities, it is difficult for NALs to succeed for learning (Laitinen, 2012). However, the credit hour, in this type of environment. While NALs have been found to which requires a certain amount of classroom time to obtain be dedicated students and highly motivated (Knowles, credit, is best designed for the full-time student who lives on Holton, & Swanson 2012; Merriam et al., 2007), their adult campus, and who can consistently attend classes or give up status and issues that relate to this type of diversity directly other responsibilities to accommodate classroom atten- conflicts with the dominant method for assessing and assign- dance. Only 14% of all undergraduates both attend college ing college credit in postsecondary education. It is important full-time and also live on campus (Laitinen, 2012). The to note that the credit hour system has implications not only credit hour and the youth-centric perspective that learning for educational delivery and assessment, but also for finan- equals seat time is increasingly irrelevant, and serves as a cial aid and full/part-time student status (Silva, White, & major barrier for engagement and an impediment to aca- Toch, 2015). demic success for NALs. To cater to their needs, colleges and universities, along The idea of the credit hour actually began in the late 1800s with NALs themselves, must first eschew their stereotypical as a standard unit to better compare the time high school stu- framework associated with learning within the credit hour dents spent learning a subject (Shed, 2003). At the postsec- system both in terms of what constitutes learning and the ondary level, the credit hour as a standard unit arose out of traditional nature of educational hierarchy. First, learning Andrew Carnegie’s concern for the poor compensation of defined in CBE is measured by the actual demonstration of faculty (Laitinen, 2012). The credit hour was used to mea- competence; therefore, time is an irrelevant metric. NALs sure the amount of time faculty and students interacted, for and colleges and universities must break the association with the purposes of qualifying for retirement pensions for fac- classroom time, and focus upon mechanisms that showcase ulty. It is important to note that the credit hour was an admin- the demonstration of competence. Second, because CBE istrative measurement not a measurement designed to assess approaches focus on personalized learning and a learner- educational quality. In fact, the Carnegie Foundation was centric stance to education, educators play multiple roles in quite clear about this but in the early 1900s, colleges and addition to being the context expert, which means that NALs universities did not head the Foundations advice because of and colleges and universities must break the association the educational assessment convenience of the credit hour (J. between educator and content expert. While educators within Harris, 2002). Perhaps the most vital aspect of the credit hour CBE approaches do have content expertise, they also play that is a detriment to NALs is the assumption that all students the role of mentor, facilitator, and educational collaborator. will take the same predetermined amount of time to learn and CBE breaks down traditional educational hierarchy in the complete their degree (Irvine & Kevan, 2017); it assumes classroom and, instead, works toward empowering the NAL. learning uniformity and ignores the issues that arise from Consequently, NALs must become accustomed to being an NAL diversity. active partner as well as taking a leadership role in this Research has consistently shown that time spent in the framework. They can no longer be passive recipients of classroom does not equate to actual learning. Several major knowledge since the basis for CBE is dependent on the edu- studies have revealed some sobering statistics related to cational desires and direction of the learner. actual college-level learning. Forty-five percent of students But perhaps one of the most important aspects of CBE for completing the first two years of college and 36% of stu- NALs is its potential for meaningful and transformative dents completing 4 years of college show no statistical dif- learning. Given its highly personalized and customized ference in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and approach, NALs have the opportunity to confront the basis communication skills (Arum & Roksa, 2011). Graduating for their prior learning through a reflective process, and they college students have been found to demonstrate deficien- come to understand how they have developed knowledge. cies in document, prose, and quantitative literacy, with Postsecondary education does not only meet the employment results ranging from only 25% to 31% of college graduates and practical needs of NALs, it can provide a personal, life- being able to do these tasks (Kutner, Greenberg, & Baer, changing experience. Chen 7 in the sense that they will be learning something that they Remedying the Credit Hour Problem have never heard of or have been exposed to. However, Competence-based approaches fit particularly well with learning more likely entails a reorientation of prior assump- NALs because it upholds and accommodates two important tions or beliefs. Critical reflection is a process of questioning factors: (a) learning for a purpose in a (b) flexible way. There the veracity and integrity of longstanding beliefs (Taylor, are several characteristics of CBE approaches that address 2008), and looks to understand the basis of these beliefs and the diversity of needs represented in the NAL population. how they developed. It is the “active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge Self-paced. Given the demands of adult life, NALs engage- in light of the grounds that support it and the further conclu- ment with higher education is highly dependent on other sion to which it tends” (Dewey, 1993, p. 9). It can be an schedules related to work and family identities. Schooling is inherently disconcerting experience but one that holds tre- often a priority to exclude when there are stressors. Tradi- mendous long-term utility for NALs because of its potential tional modes of education based on the credit hour demands for long-term, memorable learning. There is potential for a certain amount of physical seat time in the classroom to learning to include emotional reactions, spiritual formation, obtain credit. This rigid structure often precludes NALs from and embodied experiences in addition to cognitive/intellec- obtaining credit due to the need to be away from the class- tual growth. room for various reasons. The self-paced structure of CBE is not tied to actual time in a seat and, instead, assesses learning Challenges and Criticisms With CBE based upon the demonstration of learning at a pace that respects NALs’ life schedules. While CBE approaches are not new, they have only recently attracted attention at a large scale. While CBE holds poten- Individualized. CBE models are learner-centric in the sense tial to address the diversity issues that arise with NALs, there that programs will personalize learning plans to meet both the are several significant challenges and criticisms associated outcomes desired as well as allow the learner to help identify with the interconnectedness of both its viability as a learning the methods of demonstration of mastery. CBE meets stu- approach as well as its viability for wide-scale adoption. dents where they are by helping them determine what they According to Irvine and Kevan (2017), CBE faces signifi- already know, and to build upon that knowledge in a way that cant headwinds in establishing itself as a viable educational meets their goals for education. NALs have the option to be approach. Perhaps the main criticism of CBE is the lack of as focused and personal in their learning as they wish; learn- quantitative, large-scale, multivariate studies. Research on ing is dependent on what they actually want to learn. CBE has predominantly been disseminated through policy papers by nonprofit educational think tanks, likely due to the Assessment of prior learning/multiple ways of knowing. In a fact that CBE programs continue to reside in the periphery of credit hour system, students have to physically be present to postsecondary education. A recent large-scale review of receive credit. This is simply not possible for many NALs. A CBE, conducted by a policy research institute, consisted of midlevel manager at a financial services firm most likely analyses of 380 articles of which only 26.8% employed already has competence in basic finance and accounting. quantitative, descriptive methodology (Kelly & Columbus, However, the only way for her to obtain credit is to actually 2016). Sixty percent were qualitative investigations and take the requisite courses even though she likely already 11.6% were literature reviews (1.6% was not categorized). knows the material and can demonstrate competence. In fact, While qualitative methods provide insightful, population- she likely has the expertise to teach some classes. Assess- specific data, predictive quantitative methods are needed to ment of prior learning is a set of strategies used by institu- provide statistics on effectiveness and prediction confidence. tions to evaluate college-level learning for credit outside of a Without large-scale, quantitative data, there are limits to formal college course (credit hour; Tate & Klein-Collins, extolling the effectiveness of CBE. Another significant criti- 2015). Removing the constraints of minimum time in the cism is that CBE lacks a standard definition. The literature classroom opens the door for NALs to receive credit for contains different monikers including mastery-based, profi- knowledge and skills they already demonstrate. Assessment ciency-based, and outcomes-based education that adds to the of prior learning opens the door to receiving credit for evalu- complexity of formally defining CBE (Book, 2014; ation of corporate or military training, individualized student Gallagher, 2014). portfolios, or standardized exams. These methods demon- Accompanying the criticisms are specific challenges. strate that there are multiple ways of knowing, and that First, there are different two main models, course/credit NALs can utilize several methods to not only learn but to equivalence and direct assessment, within CBE. Course/ demonstrate their level of learning. credit equivalence are competences that are embedded into the traditional course-based format (Book, 2014). They are Deeper meaning through critical reflection. For NALs who currently the more common of the two but because of their have a wealth of experience, learning is typically not “new” similarity and ties to the credit hour, its relevance to NALs 8 SAGE Open runs into similar challenges of traditional course. Direct Implications for Practitioners assessment allows self-paced progress and demonstration of At a tangible level, practitioners need to reorient their per- mastery before moving to another level (Book, 2014). Given ceptions of their role and move away from the limitations of that there are several ways to demonstrate mastery of compe- a content expert and time-based credit hour perception of tences apart from traditional course assessment, there has college learning. The relationship between educator and been hesitancy for institutions to implement these models. NAL has been shown to be one of the most impactful factors Although potentially viable, the nature of these self-paced in the ability to persist in schooling (Daloz, 1999), especially programs may not include consistent interaction with faculty, when their struggles and stressors are acknowledged and as required by federal law (but assumed within a credit hour validated. Three implications of a more relational approach system), which brings up the third challenge for CBE: the to educating adults are provided. role of the federal government. CBE program viability is closely tied to federal financial aid because of its connection Facilitating self-direction. Due to its emphasis on learner-cen- to the credit hour (Irvine & Kevan, 2017), and CBE has had tricity, the key to learning success in CBE for NALs is the difficulty being recognized by the U.S. Department of learner, not the educator. To help the NAL realize his/her Education as well as accrediting bodies. There has been little potential, he/she must be encouraged to adopt self-direction guidance from the federal government regarding their per- to take educational initiative. The personalized nature of ception and support for direct assessment (Fain, 2014). CBE indicates that prior to determining the path toward Lastly, CBE has fundamental implications for the role of graduation, the educator must first understand the reasons faculty and assessment (Irvine & Kevan, 2017). The trend that the NAL is engaging in higher education. This requires a has been the “unbundling” or “disaggregation” (p. 13) of fac- more intimate and interactive relationship that is different ulty roles, which shifts some responsibility to support staff, from traditional academic advising. The educator is tasked to so that faculty can focus less on delivery of academic content adopt more of a facilitator role that helps to set the conditions but more on personalized feedback to students. Given the for self-direction and subsequent learning (Brockett & Hiem- self-paced and self-directed nature of CBE, individualized stra, 1991; Knowles, 1980) through inviting the learner to feedback and support and an understanding of students accept the primary responsible role for learning. unique goals may be more effective for student learning Tennant (2006) uses the metaphor of a growing plant to compared to faculty solely focused on content development demonstrate the facilitative role of adult educators. Much as in the traditional model. In terms of assessment, CBE has like a seed is determined to be a plant, an adult learner is not achieved consensus on quality assessment. Currently, determined to better herself. However, in the same way that there are differing views on the role of assessment, when there are certain environmental conditions that can either competence is achieved, and the role of standardization promote or inhibit growth in the plant, there are conditions (Gibson, 2013). that can act similarly with an NAL. The educator facilitates learning (i.e., growth) through helping set conditions for Implications for Practitioners and learning. This generally revolves around creating safety for the NAL to ask difficult questions, to challenge their own Institutions thinking, and to feel that their experience is valid. While there are understandable criticisms and challenges related to CBE, given the specific set of diversity issues that Personal narrative as a primary learning medium. What is clear NALs bring to postsecondary education, it is imperative to about working with NALs is that their experiences and nar- understand them through a diversity lens. Their purposes for ratives are key to learning (Chen, 2014). Unlike traditional entering higher education and their ability to engage with it students who have less life experience and who are generally are distinctly different from the late adolescent student and more impressionable, NALs have opinions and convictions, the youth-centric institutions that serve them. Catering to sometimes very strongly, regarding certain topics. Utilizing NALs requires an educational approach that respects their their perspective and inviting them to delve into the forma- life phase and the limitations that these life phases have on tion of their viewpoint and narrative is an important step their ability to consistently engage within time-based, credit toward learning. These experiences are often jarring for hour system. CBE offers an approach that provides a model NALs as they are appropriately challenged to consider the that respects the demands of their life phase as well as maxi- basis of their perspectives (Mezirow, 2009). While colleges mizes their learning experience. Because of its personalized and universities should have established curricula, which approach, NALs greatly benefit due to its direct relevance to represent a diverse range of academic topics, finding ways multiple areas of their lives. Adopting a CBE perspective for an adult learner to find usefulness in the topic is para- holds significant potential for both education practitioners as mount. For example, while an adult learner may be working well as institutions to better attract, retain, and educate this in finance and have little utility for Latin American literature, subsection of the undergraduate population that will only situating the literature within an appropriate context of glo- continue to grow in the future. balization and culture can increase relevance of the material Chen 9 as the adult learner may work with colleagues with Latin the betterment of citizens. Three implications of institution- American backgrounds or she may have contact with col- side change are provided. leagues living within Latin American countries. Personalizing learning also provides flexibility for NALs Reassessment of the credit hour. One of the boldest initiatives to use settings, questions, and problems of interest as the is for colleges and universities to reassess tying college credit main media for learning. For example, a professor of psy- to the credit hour for NALs. This longstanding foundation of chology may be teaching a course on group dynamics. While higher education fits the needs of a more static world but there are general psychological principles to be learned, given that the student body is quickly changing, the credit application of the learning could be based upon the interests hour is now providing numerous challenges and proving to and experiences of the adult learner. They could be asked to be a significant barrier for entry into higher education. Loos- pick a group that they are either involved in or can readily ening of this concept while also embracing the notion that observe, and they would be able to observe the principles there are a variety of ways to demonstrate learning will help occurring within those groups. make postsecondary education more accessible to NALs. Most importantly, recognizing that knowledge can be gained Transformational versus instrumental learning. Given the outside the constraints of the credit hour system is also sym- wealth of experiences that NALs bring to the classroom, the bolic in that the institution validates multiple ways of learn- chances of them having some conflictual or uncomfortable ing. The one-size-fits-all credit hour system, while useful in past life experiences is quite high (Daloz, 1999). Adult edu- its administrative intentions, is less of a relevant concept in cators recognize the interconnection between learning and today’s educational landscape. One could argue that it is an emotional growth in NALs. Respected adult education archaic relic of a different era that has long outlived its util- scholar, Laurent Daloz (1999), best sums up this connection, ity, and is now a potentially unfair practice. “I have come to believe that the line between learning and healing is finer than we might think . . . Within the obvious Adult-friendly campuses. Youth-centric campuses tend to deter limits, perhaps a deeper understanding of the dynamics of NALs from engaging with them (Kasworm, 2010; Nelken, healing would inform our knowledge of learning” (p. 241). 2009) especially if they have had prior negative experiences However, they may not have had the opportunity to under- (Crossan, Field, Gallacher, & Merrill, 2003). Interestingly, stand or even examine the experience. In CBE, having prior NALs’ identities as students are often shaped by institutional experiences by themselves is not learning (we all have life shortcomings when it comes to their needs (O’Donnell & experiences), but the ability to disentangle the nuances of Tobbell, 2007); they rally around the fact that they are outli- the experience, critically examine it, and derive meaning ers in colleges and universities. These institutions can from them is part of the process to more fully develop a become more attractive to NALs through two main strate- tested, open, flexible perspectives (Mezirow, 2009). For gies. First, the educational model must fit with their life stage example, an NAL of color, through repeated discriminatory and needs. Adopting CBE models offers the flexibility that experiences, may demonstrate internalized racism. He begins to solve one of the biggest barriers for NALs, the comes to believe that he is inferior, he has accepted this per- aforementioned credit hour. A robust CBE model reveals spective, and he brings this perspective to the classroom. multiple pathways to obtaining a college degree. Second, When encountering a difficult assignment, he may attribute college and university campuses can better accommodate his challenges to inferior ability, and give up. Transforma- NALs by offering support services relevant to them. While tional learning allows the student to confront the experi- colleges and universities should not get rid of the youth-cen- ences that led to this belief, and it frees him to be able to tric services that attract traditional students, they can do a learn without the constraints of the previously oppressive better job of offering adult-centric services. For example, self-perspective. university counseling centers in recent years have expanded services to better fit the needs of NALs (e.g., evening hours, adult-centric groups). Given the primary role of work in their Implications for Institutions decision to engage with postsecondary education, more Postsecondary institutions play a powerful role both in the robust career services designed for students in higher job educational lives of students as well as in the broader educa- positions would be especially welcomed, as well as services tional policy community. The growth in recent years of for- focused on more adult-centric career themes such as career profit educational institutions is due, in part, to the market transitions or second career seekers. for postsecondary education that fits with the learning needs and lifestyle of NALs. Given that colleges and universities Educational partner. It is quite clear that NALs do not fit the serve at some level as gatekeepers toward a more educated youth-centric educational mold. Given that the demand for workforce, they are at the frontlines of national stability and postsecondary education from NALs will continue to economic prosperity. Colleges and universities, in adapting increase, colleges and universities need to reassess their role to both employment and educational realities, can help shape within an educative environment. Currently, traditional 10 SAGE Open models of education are highly prescribed in terms of credit Belasco, A. S., Rosinger, K. O., & Hearn, J. C. (2015). The test- optional movement at America’s selective liberal arts colleges: hours needed for graduation as well as specified courses that A boon for equity or something else? Educational Evaluation make-up general education requirement and major courses. and Policy Analysis, 37, 206-223. While these requirements make sense for the traditional-age Birnbaum, R. (1983). Maintaining diversity in higher education. student, this top-down approach is poorly matched to the San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. adult learner, in which top-down hierarchy and predefined Book, P. A. (2014). All hands on deck: Ten lessons from early learning is both personally and developmentally incompati- adopters of competency-based education. Boulder, CO: ble. Instead, colleges and universities can benefit from adopt- Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. ing a partnership approach to educating NALs. While Brockett, R. G., & Hiemstra, R. (1991). Self-direction in learn- standards of competence and learning do need to be upheld, ing: Perspectives in theory, research, and practice. London, perhaps a more collaborative, flexible approach, based upon England: Routledge. the needs of the actual learner, would be more beneficial. Brookfield, S. D. (2000). Transformative learning as ideology cri- tique. In J. Mezirow & Associates (Eds.), Learning as trans- Adopting an educational partnership role allows colleges and formation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress (pp. universities to work more closely and intimately with NALs 125-148.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. to meet their individual needs. Carnivale, A. P., Smith, N., & Strohl, J. (2010). Help wanted: Projections of jobs and education and the workforce— Conclusion Requirements through 2018. Washington, DC: Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. In the broader discussion of diversity in colleges and universi- Chartrand, J. M. (1990). A causal analysis to predict the personal ties, NALs should not be neglected. For too long, this signifi- and academic adjustment of nontraditional students. Journal of cant section of the undergraduate student population has been Counseling Psychology, 37, 65-73. ignored. While they are motivated students, they have less Chen, J. C. (2014). Teaching nontraditional adult students: Adult opportunity to successfully engage in postsecondary educa- learning theories in practice. Teaching in Higher Education, 19, 406-418. tion due to the youth-centric collegiate culture serving as a Choy, S. (2002). Findings from the condition of education 2002: barrier to both entry and success for NALs. The demands of a Nontraditional undergraduates. Washington, DC: National dynamic world of work requires an increasingly educated Center for Education Statistics. workplace and employees. NALs are looking to better their Colby, S. L., & Ortman, J. M. (2015). Projections of the size and own situations and part of their strategy is to engage in post- composition of the U.S. population: 2014 to 2060 (Current pop- secondary education. Because their presence on campuses is ulation reports, P25-1143). Washington, DC: U.S. Government projected to continue to grow and at a faster rate compared to Printing Office, U.S. Census Bureau. the traditional, late adolescent student, they can no longer be Coulter, X., & Mandell, X. (2012). Adult higher education: Are ignored. The totality of the undergraduate student population we moving in the wrong direction? The Journal of Continuing is outgrowing the traditional educational mold. Ignoring this Higher Education, 60, 40-42. section of diversity in the undergraduate population will ulti- Cranton, P., & Taylor, E. W. (2012). Transformative learning theory: Seeking a more unified theory. In E. W. Taylor & mately have economic, political, and social ramifications. P. 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Published: Mar 6, 2017
Keywords: diversity; nontraditional; adult; competence-based education; credit hour
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