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Optimizing for the Adult Learner

Roughly 70 percent of today’s college students are “nontraditional students,” meaning that they are over the age of 24, commute to campus, work part or full-time, are financially independent, or have children. Some enter college with only a GED, while others are reentry students with previously earned credits from multiple institutions. Many of these students are low-income, the first in their families to attend college, or come from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.

Despite this new majority, most institutions of higher education are designed for students who have recently completed high school. To succeed, students must rearrange their schedules and sideline competing life demands, demands that may be unreasonable for those who must work full-time, commute long distances, or support families.

As Jessie Brown and Deanna Marcum detail in a new case study, the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) was planned from inception to serve geographically dispersed adult learners, and makes supporting such students central to all of its operations. In Serving the Adult Student at University of Maryland University College, Brown and Marcum trace UMUC’s development from a division within University of Maryland, College Park, designed to serve veterans and military students, to its current status as an independent, non-profit, public institution within the University System of Maryland (USM) serving 85,000 students all over the world.

The report focuses, in particular, on recent curricular and operational changes that have enhanced UMUC’s ability to serve adult learners. These developments include a robust program of online course delivery; realignment of programs to focus on workforce-ready skills, especially through the creation of competencies and aligned outcomes reporting; a customer-service approach to student support, including a 24-hour call center; and the use of sophisticated data analysis to inform for student support, program design, and institutional decision making.

One feature that has facilitated all of these changes is the fact that nearly all of UMUC’s courses are taught by adjunct “scholar-practitioners”: faculty that have advanced degrees and actively work in the field in which they teach. Faculty are hired as professional teachers, not as discipline-based research faculty, which reinforces UMUC’s student-centric culture. At the same time, UMUC’s adult students appreciate learning from those with practical experience and career success in their intended field. Perhaps because of their distinctive relationship with the institution, UMUC’s faculty have also been notably willing to engage in a highly coordinated curriculum development process, managed by program chairs and instructional designers. This process has ensured a measure of consistency in the learning outcomes, assessments, and materials across UMUC’s offerings around the world. It also enabled UMUC’s comprehensive shift to open educational resources, which has saved students millions of dollars, in aggregate.

While UMUC’s history and structure make it distinctive, the strategies it has pursued to support its adult students provide valuable lessons to a variety of institutions that enroll growing shares of nontraditional learners. More generally, UMUC’s organizational culture and data-driven approach to change management offer a worthwhile example for how to advance substantial, mission-aligned innovations.

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