Offering a More Flexible Curriculum

Your efforts to both attract and retain the growing population of adult students have to begin at the curricular level. No amount of investment in marketing or student support will make up for a curriculum and an academic calendar that does not meet adult learner needs.

When asked about key influencing factors on college choice for adult students, Bob Sevier, senior vice president of strategy at STAMATS, notes: "If there's one thing you need to stress, it's flexibility."

It's key to understand that adult students have more demands on their time. Sevier suggests that adult students are also more likely than traditional students to perceive their college education as a means to an end. "For many traditional students, the campus experience and the process of gaining education is an event, a rite of passage. For adult learners, it is more likely a step to getting something else -- a better degree, a better job." Adult students are likely to be focused on that end outcome and will search for the quickest and most convenient way to get to it.

The flexibility that attracts adult students includes:

  • Courses offered at different times (evenings, weekends)
  • Accelerated programming
  • Prior learning assessment

For adult students who have competing commitments on their time (career, family, etc.), the absence of this type of flexibility isn't merely an inconvenience; for many, it's a barrier to enrolling at your institution. To learn more about putting this flexibility into practice, we turned to Charles B. Cushman, Jr., currently a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University, and recently the acting director for the Graduate School of Political Management's College of Professional Studies at the George Washington University. Here is Cushman's advice.

Flexible Course Scheduling

"Courses offered on evenings and weekends are absolutely necessary for serving adults," Cushman notes, but just offering evening courses may not be enough. Adult students' extracurricular commitments -- such as a part-time or full-time job -- may make the traditional regularity of the course schedule problematic. Cushman suggests:

  • Rather than assuming that regularity (a course every Tuesday evening) is ideal, offer some sessions of the course at different times (such as every other weekend) so that adult learners who are unable to attend the regular time each week have an additional option
  • Invest in hybrid course design to offer a "meet in the middle" approach for adult learners who can only get away from work some of the time
  • Offer adults as much "lead time as humanly possible" -- make sure the syllabus is available well in advance of the first day of the class, so that adult students have time to make accommodations in their work schedule

Cushman notes that there are several obstacles to flexible scheduling that need to be addressed. First, does the software your institution uses to schedule classrooms allow you the flexibility? If your automated system does not easily allow for scheduling courses to meet on some week days and some weekend days, then your faculty may need to request that by hand -- which will likely mean being assigned less-than-optimal space late in the space allocation process.

But Cushman also suggests that addressing the issue of flexibility for adult learners opens up an important opportunity for a broader discussion around how the institution schedules space: "Our basic teaching model focuses on contact hours, face-time, seat time. But is that how good teaching actually happens? A skills-intensive course or a course using a simulation to teach may benefit from a model other than 14 regularly scheduled lessons. Maybe that course needs just 10 lessons, and the rest of the time is devoted to a weekend retreat where students do the learning simulation in real time. We have to be open to different ways of teaching."

Accelerated Programming

A number of institutions have begun offering accelerated programming for nontraditional students. In the most frequent model, the time taken to cover course content is compressed into a smaller number of weeks that each contain a higher number of class sessions.

Cushman notes one important consideration: as you ramp up the number of accelerated courses your institution offers, it will be critical to determine how you will quantify the teaching credit for that course for the faculty. "For example, if an accelerated course only takes six weeks to complete," Cushman asks, "does that count as one course when determining teaching loads and during faculty evaluation? Your faculty may be completing a course's worth of work compressed into a few weeks ... and that has to be accounted for. On the calendar, it may not look like they taught a full course. But when you review the syllabus, the reading assignments, and the number of graded assignments, it may well be a full course's worth of workload for the faculty."

Prior Learning Assessment

Many adult learners return to college from the work force having received extensive corporate training, certification, or hands-on expertise in particular areas. Cushman suggests: "Make sure your institution has a mechanism for addressing prior learning assessment. Not everyone needs to start at the start line. How do you get people started deeper in, when appropriate?"

According to Denise Hart, the director of adult education and creator of the Success Program at Fairleigh Dickinson University, the key to putting in place academically rigorous prior learning assessment is to focus on offering structured options for students to demonstrate specific skills or a knowledge base that they have learned outside of an academic institution. "This isn't about giving credit for 'life experience'," Hart notes. "You need to assign credit for demonstrated learning."

You may, for example, have a media technology student who worked for a decade for a major television network and is now returning to school for a further degree, or a hospital corpsman recently discharged from the navy who wants to pursue his pre-med; he likely took coursework in anatomy and physiology in the military, and is probably already performing many of the tasks a med tech would perform in a hospital. A portfolio assessment that requires these students to demonstrate their prior learning can help to reduce the number of credit hours they need to take, improving their persistence and their sense of momentum.

"Providing credit for experiential learning often makes the bridge to the next degree for an adult learner. By accelerating these students, you are helping them move right along to graduation or into graduate education. And you are increasing the student's satisfaction. You are creating an advocate for your institution."
Denise Hart, Fairleigh Dickinson U


Techniques for Assessing Prior Learning (January 2010)

PLA: Outreach to Faculty (March 2010)

For Graduate Students: Stackable Credentials

Cushman also notes a model developed at The George Washington University that offers a unique approach to credentialing graduate students. The model was devised as the institution identified growing markets of working professionals who are interested in returning to postsecondary education to develop very specific skill sets. Many of these professionals were already enrolling in search of potential courses; GW identified an untapped opportunity.

Cushman describes the model in this way: "A master's degree can be conceived of as one big degree, or as a set of nested certificates." For example:

  • You could offer two certificates of 6-7 courses each; together, the certificates "stack" into one master's degree
  • You could offer the core courses of a graduate program as one certificate, and then add three shorter certificate programs that each address a specific skill area

The George Washington University offers the second of these two options for its paralegal program; the shorter certificates include international law and intellectual property law. Each of these are specific sub-fields in which a paralegal may wish to develop expertise. "If I am a senior paralegal," Cushman notes, "I may not need a master's degree because I'm already in the business, but if I do need experience in intellectual property law, I can go get that certificate and complete the program in six months. If I am a junior paralegal and I want my degree, I can take each certificate and eventually complete the entire degree program -- and along the way, I will have certifications to show my supervisors at work that I am making progress in the program."

As this example demonstrates, working professionals returning for graduate-level work may have a variety of goals in mind. An outside-the-box "stackable credentials" approach allows your institution to serve these diverse audiences and meet their learning needs.