Making the Postsecondary Education Experience a Primary Focus for the Evolving Student Population: Establishing Curricula, Goals, and Metrics for Non-Traditional Learners

Making the Postsecondary Education Experience a Primary Focus for the Evolving Student Population: Establishing Curricula, Goals, and Metrics for Non-Traditional Learners

Craig M. Newman (DePaul University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8488-9.ch001
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As the United States grapples with the changing realities associated with a rapidly post-industrial economy, the need for a robust postsecondary educational structure is taking on an outsized importance for social and societal viability. While the need to augment and prepare current and future workforces is apparent, the best practices and ideas for what is needed, who needs it, and how to deliver the needed educational undergirding for a transformative workforce are less certain. The existing paradigms of higher education—be they college- or vocation-oriented—are struggling to maintain relevance in serving a student consumer for whom traditional education models are less relevant and often too slow to adapt to the demands of a changing work environment.
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The structure of the postsecondary-education system has undergone a sea change as the American workforce becomes older and pressed to adapt to a post-industrial economy (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017). Adult and nontraditional learners are coming to the classroom for a wide variety of needs (Characteristics of postsecondary students, 2018) including educational, professional, and personal growth. But with increased educational attainment comes an increase in the commensurate expenses (Trends in college pricing, 2017), necessitating an increase in financial aid.

This has increased focus on the idea of assessment, with respect to the need for success metrics that may not conform to “traditional” higher education needs; and because of governmental requirements for aid (Porter, 2016), often tied to the credit-hour standard (Brower, Kallio, Karoff, Mailloux, & Schejbal, 2017). This chapter examines some of the literature on current trends and thinking around assessment strategy and standards in nontraditional, postsecondary education environments, to examine how institutions are developing methodologies for gauging student success. The four broadly identified themes of the discussion are: Workforce and Student Population Data; Traditional and Nontraditional Education Programs and Structures; Current and Evolving Measurement and Metrics; and The Lumina Foundation.

Workforce and Student Population Data

Competency-based education and enhanced adult learning opportunities are taking on increasing importance in postsecondary higher education (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017) as the demand for trained workers increases. Currently, about 21 million students are in some form of postsecondary higher education (Barrow, Brock, & Rouse, 2013), an enrollment total that amounted to 1% of the United States gross domestic product in 2011. Though undergraduate college enrollment has stagnated and is not projected to grow in the next decade (U.S. college enrollment and forecast 1965-2027, 2018), adult and nontraditional learners are an increasing sector in higher education, albeit in the online-learning venue (Pearson, 2018).

While educational opportunities are expanding for nontraditional learners, the cost-benefit analysis for the value of higher education remains a question with regard to levels of institutional quality (Hoxby, 2018). The aging of the student population (Buckley & Bachman, 2017) also presents unique challenges on campuses whose makeup is still predominantly traditional and younger.

Traditional and Nontraditional Education Programs and Structures

Competency-Based Education (CBE) legislation was a growing trend in several states in recent years (Anderson, 2018), in addition to a handful of schools creating CBE programs without policy guidance. But innovation is not limited to four-year programs. Community colleges (Center for Community College Student Engagement, 2012) and two-year programs are taking on increased prominence as a postsecondary solution (Characteristics of postsecondary students, 2018). As many adult and nontraditional learners may have been out of the educational system for some time, support structures (Karmelita, 2018) different than those for traditional postsecondary students are an essential consideration for program development.

Nontraditional and CBE designs become more critical for the learners they serve in light of secondary preparation and inequities (Osborne, 2008). This new learner landscape puts the onus on institutional leadership (Soares, 2013) to consider how universities structure programs to be maximally effective for the older or the nontraditional student. While some of this generation of students are returning to school for personal or lifelong-learning opportunities, the tie to workplace needs (Wax, 2017) remains a driving force for pursuing educational attainment.

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