Guest view: Don’t overlook the adult learner

Dr. Kimberly Johnston//August 16, 2019

Guest view: Don’t overlook the adult learner

Dr. Kimberly Johnston//August 16, 2019

One job, one company from the day you start working until the day you retire?

Decades ago, this was the norm, but it’s now an increasingly rare concept for the working professional.

According to a 2016 study by LinkedIn, millennials will change jobs four times in the first 10 years after college. And they’re not just progressing from one role to another — they’re switching industries and careers.

Another survey, by staffing and recruiting firm Robert Half, found 64 percent of workers are inclined to job hop — a term that refers to changing jobs after less than two years.

As career transiency becomes the norm, more “adult learners” and “non-traditional” students enter — or re-enter — the higher education space. And, due to life experience, family demands and other characteristics, the traditional model for higher education doesn’t necessarily work for this growing part of the student population.

From class schedules, financial aid eligibility and internship requirements to general education requirements, colleges, universities and other learning institutions need to evaluate and develop a more flexible model to serve the growing adult learner population.

And for business owners who want to create a supportive environment for employees to grow and increase employee retention, it’s important to consider how continuing education might factor into those goals and what role they can play in employees’ career journeys.

Offer alternative credit options

At Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences (PA College), more than half of our students are adult learners (aged 25+) looking to build on previous education and advance in their careers or change careers altogether.

But for some, having to start at the beginning and retake classes they took in a previous bachelor’s degree program or re-learn concepts they’ve already learned in the workplace environment can be both frustrating and costly.

Creating a process to assign value to comparable previous education and work experience is critical. PA College has started doing this with several degree and certification programs and, while it’s time consuming, it makes for a more rigorous and stimulating experience and, ultimately, attracts more students by serving their individual needs.

As an employer, be prepared to vouch for the experience employees have gained through work, and consider how you could adapt roles and responsibilities to align with course content to count for class or internship credits.

Create an open dialogue

It’s all about setting the right expectations. For many traditional students, the primary focus is school, but adult learners tend to have several competing priorities between work, family, internships and classes. School administrators and faculty should strategize how to make accommodations, whether it’s scheduling more flexible office hours, incorporating online streaming options or holding regular check-ins with students to get a pulse on how they’re balancing it all. For example, PA College has started offering evening and weekend classes in our LPN-to-RN bridge program for students who work during the day.

If you’re an employer, make it clear that you’re supportive of employees continuing their education so when employees decide to go back to school, they don’t feel the need to hide it. Encourage leaders and managers to be supportive as well, and offer flexible working hours or the option to work remotely if needed to support class schedules.

Recognize and reaffirm their value

There’s often a stigma attached to anything that’s “non-traditional,” and adult learners are no exception. As a society, we write off anyone who doesn’t fit the traditional four-year college mold.

But adult learners add diversity and bring a level of commitment that can enhance the learning experience for everyone. Going back to school is a big decision — it means stepping out of your comfort zone to pursue a different path. Most individuals who make that sacrifice of time and comfort are exceptionally motivated and driven to succeed. They offer different perspectives from past jobs and education, as well as life experience, such as being a caretaker for a parent or other family member, parenting their own children, traveling and more.

They also keep professors on their toes — they challenge and push back on lessons that others might more easily accept, creating more opportunities for exploration and discussion of new ideas.

Consider financial needs

There’s a plethora of financial aid options available to incoming freshman — government need-based aid, school scholarships, organization scholarships, etc. — but the pool of options for non-traditional students is significantly smaller.

Consider need-based financial aid that calculates the cost of family and additional expenses that adult learners may be balancing.

As an employer, if your employee is pursuing a degree that will add knowledge and value to your business, consider how you could help offset costs as an added benefit or incentive. Talk to your HR department about the possibility of adding a tuition reimbursement benefit or extended leave time for employees who want to pursue additional education.

Whether you’re an educator, employer, student, or supportive co-worker or family member, you have an opportunity to be a part of this learning revolution — time to hop on the job-hopping bandwagon and embrace the opportunity for new discoveries, innovation and growth.

Dr. Kimberly Johnston is the executive vice president of academic and student affairs for the Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences in East Lampeter Township, Lancaster County.