Remember those kids who eagerly waited at the end of the bench at each football game—hoping the coach would just put them in the game (and maybe give them a shot at making the play that saves the day). At last week’s ACHE (Association for Continuing Higher Education) conference, Tom Kennedy, Executive Director and President of Regis University’s New Ventures, aptly described adult-serving programs and their students as “the kids at the end of bench.” Well, it’s game day for higher education in the United States and adult-serving programs are at the vanguard of innovation because their students are critical in addressing our country’s graduation crisis.
In her keynote address, “Bold Thinking about Innovation and Collaboration,” Kristen Betts , Director of Online Learning at Armstrong Atlantic State University, stated that enrollment growth between now and 2020—the goal year set by President Obama for regaining our leadership position as the country with the greatest proportion of graduates— will come from populations that historically have been the least likely to graduate. This population includes students over 25 years old and a large number of minorities.
Adult students most likely have attempted college before, without completing a degree. They are returning to school for career advancement or change and have more than just school on their minds as they juggle the responsibilities of work and family. Like the kids at the end of the bench, they want to get in the game but too often lack the support system they need for success. Tom Kennedy observed that while continuing education and online programs are producing a lot of revenue for traditional universities, they are often looked over for investment.
The good news is that many adult-serving programs are engaged in innovative programming and focused on improving student outcomes. Dr. Cyndi Porter, Vice President of Extended Academic Programs at the University of the Incarnate Word, suggests running schools like a business and viewing students as customers. She is even giving students the chance to brush up on their study skills with “Project Persist” — a novel eight-week session that is offered at no cost to the student and earns one credit hour. The University of Phoenix is working on an on-going student retention study based on “cohort learning.”
The need to build a strong bench in higher education has never been more important. Roughly 20 percent of the population in the United States—or 50 million Americans —have some college education, but no degree. Sports teams with a deep bench achieve greatness and are often referred to as dynasties. How do we rebuild a higher education dynasty for the United States? The forward-thinking administrators I heard speak I think would agree, that there’s no single answer. But I congratulate them for getting this season off to a strong start, and continuing to build their bench.