The Many Faces of the Working Learner
Higher education in American is undergoing evolutionary change. No longer is the typical “college student” an 18-to-22-year-old living on campus who is supported by his or her parents. A full 73% of students enrolled in higher education are working adults. These adult students are a diverse population: They come from all ethnic groups and widely varying income brackets, and work in almost every sector of the economy. Their motivations for returning to school are almost as diverse as the students themselves: Some pursue a degree to be eligible for higher management positions, while others want to move out of a low-paying job sector. Some dream of changing careers or starting their own businesses others hope to set a positive example for their children, and some seek knowledge for its own sake.
The changing American workplace has also forced some employees to return to school to acquire new skills. “One of our students was a man in his fifties who had worked at the same company his entire life,” says Dr. Tracey Wilen- Daugenti, vice president of strategic alliances. “He was recruited out of high school, trained at the company’s corporate university, and became a vice president. When the firm was bought out, he was laid off and was not able to find a job, as employers viewed him as someone with high school credentials. He, like many of today’s students, returned to school to secure the degrees he needed—in his case a bachelor’s degree and an MBA—to participate in the job market while working part-time and managing a family and home.”
Anecdotes like this one are becoming commonplace as more companies are requiring employees to have college degrees. These days, education is vital to not only finding but keeping a job, as workers must constantly learn new skills and absorb new information to remain relevant. To help working adults receive the degrees and credentials they need, colleges and universities must understand the challenges these students face and what they require from an institution of higher education.
Adult Learners’ Experience Makes for an Invigorating Classroom Experience
Working learners are driven, committed students with a strong pragmatic bent and a healthy respect for education. “Many working learners are already in their chosen career field and want to advance professionally,” says dean Dr. Freda Hartman. “Their priorities many be different than those of a traditional learner. They understand how education adds value in helping them to reach their goals, and they are more engaged in active classroom learning processes.”
“In the University of Phoenix classroom, learning is a shared experience,” she adds. “Working learners are more than willing to share their experiences and ideas and questions. They help the entire class to excel. Our faculty also really appreciate the richness of that classroom environment and enjoy teaching students who are so energized about learning.”
“Working learners have years of experience in various industries, and they bring that knowledge into the classroom,” says business school dean Dr. Brian Lindquist. “They’re not naïve students. They’ve lived through the problems and issues that professionals face on the job, so they already understand the context behind the concepts and theories they learn in class.” Working learners, Lindquist says, “insist that their time is valuable. They want to know that what they’re learning tonight can help them in their professional lives tomorrow.”
Earning a degree can be as deeply meaningful for working learners as it is for traditional students. “Many of our students previously tried higher education at a time in their lives that wasn’t right for them,” Lindquist says. “Returning to school and graduating proves to them that they can do something of great significance, something which formerly seemed impossible to them.”
Flexible Scheduling Allows Students to Fit Education into Their Busy Lives
As dedicated as working learners may be to earning a degree, oftentimes they find that other responsibilities interfere with the educational process. “Every day, adult students tell us about the hardships in their lives,” says dean of nursing Dr. Pamela Fuller. “Their parents die, their kids get sick, they have car problems, or they’re laid off from work. Every day these students face the challenges all of us have to deal with, but they persevere, because they are committed to improving their lives through education.”
Institutions of higher education need to be aware of the challenges working learners face, and plan their course schedules accordingly. Working learners benefit from short, focused classes that are offered on a rolling basis in a variety of formats. Online classes allow working students to complete coursework at a time and place that suits them, but some prefer the face-to-face interaction found only in a classroom.
When colleges and universities provide students flexibility and multiple options, education becomes accessible even to time-strapped adults. Wilen-Daugenti gives an example of how two parents fit college into their busy lifestyle: “One of our alumnae had four children with special needs. She and her husband, anticipating the cost of raising them, planned to return to school and earn master’s degrees to improve their long-term job prospects. A factor they had to consider was that one parent needed to be home with the children at all times. She took online courses while her husband attended on-campus classes. The flexibility we provide allowed her to earn the degree she needed while taking care of her family.”
Different Industries, Different Needs
Working learners’ needs are tied, in large part, to the career field they work in or wish to pursue. Many education students, for example, switch to teaching from another field by earning master’s degrees in education, which include requirements for initial certification. Others, according to education dean Dr. Meredith Curley, are already teaching but “want to pursue another degree to further their career, earn additional endorsements or certifications, or learn more about an area of interest, such as teaching reading.”
Educators need classes that are available online or are scheduled at convenient times, she says. “A teacher’s day doesn’t stop when the bell rings,” she notes. “Long after the school day ends, they’re grading, planning for upcoming classes, coaching, and leading student clubs. When they’re pursuing their own coursework on top of that, it’s an added burden.” First-time teachers have the additional challenge of student teaching.
Most business students, Lindquist says, aim to “improve their career opportunities within their own organization.” That being the case, he adds, they most want a degree program that is practical and immediately applicable on the job. “Our students want to know what they’re learning is going to be relevant to the kinds of opportunities they’re seeking,” he says. “They’re constantly challenging themselves, their classmates, and the faculty to demonstrate the applicability of what they’ve learned.”
“We know they are not going to learn everything there is to know,” he adds. “That knowledge would soon obsolesce. They come away having learned to learn. As new problems confront them and new knowledge emerges, they know how to access information just in time to apply it to a new problem or opportunity.”
Nursing students, many of whom work as LPNs or RNs, must also contend with highly variable work schedules. Due to the nursing shortage, Fuller says, it’s important that these students not leave the workforce while pursuing a degree. “One advantage of our programs is that we don’t displace working nurses from the field,” she says. Nursing students fit the classic profile of today’s working learner, she adds, as the majority of them are women with children and husbands who work full-time.
Degrees are increasingly important in the nursing field, Fuller says, because “nurses who want to move beyond bedside care often need a bachelor’s or advanced degree. Jobs such as nursing manager, nurse educator, and legal nursing consultant all require a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) or higher.” Furthermore, she adds, many hospitals now prefer to hire nurses with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, meaning that many LPNs and RNs will need to earn advanced credentials to obtain choice nursing positions.
“One graduate of our bachelor’s program in nursing had been an LPN for 26 years,” Wilen-Daugenti says. “Her unit had stopped hiring new LPNs because their patients were becoming more acutely ill, and they required nurses with higher skill levels. The LPN’s manager saw that she had potential but that her lack of credentials was holding her back.” With her manager’s encouragement, the LPN enrolled at University of Phoenix and received her BSN degree and RN certification. “Today,” Wilen-Daugenti says, “she can do more for her patients, and she is engaged in research at her hospital. Many of our students, like this one, say that when employers encourage their educational pursuits they feel more valued at work, are more satisfied with their careers, and thus contribute more to the work environment.”
Creating a Better Citizenry Through Education
When working learners are educated, not only they and their employers benefit. In subtle and myriad ways, society is improved as well. “Our students develop some very important critical thinking skills,” says Lindquist. “We prepare them to make better, more rational decisions in both their personal and professional lives. They make sounder financial decisions and more informed political decisions. They’re better prepared to evaluate the many misleading arguments they confront in everyday life.”
“In our diverse society,” Hartman says, “we have people from many cultural, social, and occupational backgrounds who hold varying religious and political views. An educated person can better understand these diverse points of view, and is better prepared to take a leadership role in the community and in society.”
Education can drive organizational change, says Fuller. “The more you know and learn the more confident you become as a professional, and the more you’re able to think critically and contribute to the institution you’re working in,” she says. “Education promotes the ability to identify and think through problems and come up with provide alternatives.”
“Our students appreciate the way education enhances their career prospects,” she adds, “but they also value the learning process itself. Because of their education, they come to view the world differently. They leave school with a broader perspective on life.”