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Transformation From Within

January 21, 2013

Higher education is facing a disruption, but the biggest driver of change is getting lost in the hype. That's the message of a new report commissioned by the academy’s primary trade group, the American Council on Education.

“There is indeed a transformation coming in American higher education,” writes Louis Soares, a special policy adviser to the council’s president, Molly Corbett Broad. “It is not driven by technology or MOOCs, though these tools abet the change. It will be driven by the rise of post-traditional learners.”

Soares, who is a fellow at the Center for American Progress, defines post-traditional learners as the working-age population, between ages 25-64, who lack a college credential but are seeking to get ahead while balancing jobs with educational and family responsibilities.

This group is a growing presence in higher education, and has become the norm by some measures. Yet they fare worse in college than traditional students, graduating at lower rates. The reasons for this lag are understandable: older generally students typically have rusty academic skills and little scheduling flexibility, and often lack good information about what sort of job they might get with a college credential.

College presidents need to step up to help adult students do better, according to the report, which carries the subtitle: “A Manifesto for College Leaders.” Soares writes that colleges must rethink their institutional, instructional and business models to improve how they serve the post-traditional learner.

Much of the conversation about innovation in higher education is occurring outside of the academy, Soares said. He would like to see that change.

“We need your voice here,” said Soares. “It’s a time for institutional reinvention.”

ACE issued a disclaimer with the report, noting that it reflects the views of Soares, and necessarily those of the council. But the strongly worded exhortation out of One Dupont Circle, where ACE and other higher education groups are located, will no doubt raise some eyebrows. And Broad signaled tentative support for the report’s message.

“The issue of increasing attainment rates among all Americans, including adult learners, is of great importance to the higher education community and the national as a whole,” Broad said in a written statement. “Soares offers some intriguing ideas about the role innovation might play as higher education leaders continue to address the pressing issue of post-traditional learners and attainment.”

Demand from adult students is growing rapidly, and that in turn is leading to increased interest in alternative forms of credentialing and learning. These innovations, which Soares calls a “new ecosystem for learning validation outside of the academy,” include corporate training universities, prior learning assessment and competency-based forms of education.

Rather than resisting these emerging forms of learning, the paper argues that college leaders should consider them “partners and tools to lead the vanguard of transforming the very system they now control.”

ACE is poised to play an increasingly prominent role in the adult student market. The council has long been a leader on prior-learning assessment, mostly through credit recommendations it issues for learning that occurs in military and corporate training programs. It is pushing to expand this work, with new hires and a more vocal emphasis. And the council is now considering credit recommendations for a handful of courses offered by Coursera and Udacity, two major providers of massive open online courses (MOOCs).

 

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