Learning is for the young?

By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle And Get Your Degree Guide

The expression adult learners leaves me scratching my head. At what age were we supposed to stop being learners? Clearly, changes in who we are should drive changes in educational needs. Who I was at 40 was clearly different from who I was at 23 when I began a corporate career. Ray Kroc, founder, late in life, of McDonald’s used to say if you weren’t green and growing you were dead. At 40 I went back to school to earn a doctorate and change my career. But I was always learning with every new job in the corporate world that I held, and workshop or seminar I attended, or mentor I listened to.

My favorite example of this view is the story of the late civil rights and feminist activist Pauli Murray. Murray was born in the South in the early 1900s, and as a Black woman with a college degree at that time, her only career choice was to teach. She became quite aware, after many years, that her students were greatly affected by what happened in their family lives. She left teaching and earned a master’s degree in social work with the aim of improving families’ lives. In the process she came to feel that the social and legal systems stood in the way of her peoples’ ability to progress, and so she left social work and earned a law degree. She became well known as a civil rights and women’s rights attorney. When she was in her 60s she began to believe that the key to a good life lay in the spiritual realm. She returned to school and earned a divinity degree, and at age 72 became a minister and the “Priest¬-in-Charge” of the Holy Nativity Church in Baltimore. Pauli Murray had four distinct and productive careers over a long life span that continued into her 80s. She was the ultimate adult learner.

Aging and experience seem to offer greater awareness of what skills we need, what skills we have, what we want to do and how to go about getting it. However our society does not value that reality. The adult who has a family, some time in the workplace under his belt and a need or desire to retool is categorized as some kind of odd duck.

At one point in my career I was a Vice-President at Metropolitan College of New York which was founded in the 1960s with the goal of serving women on welfare who needed to enhance their economic options by getting a college degree. These women had been in the workforce but only marginally and lacking that crucial college credential were prevented from further advancement. The creative curriculum that founder Audrey Cohen created was one designed to use the work these students did to manifest and enhance the skills that they had. What was clear though, was that these women learned every day and they had become experts at survival. Like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz they lacked the credential and the formal educational framework to contextualize what they knew and needed to know to advance.

As our world changes over time the nature of work changes too. We went from being an agrarian society where “book learning” was not seen as highly relevant to making a living at least among the masses. As an industrial society we needed workers who could read and follow directions and increasing levels of sophistication in management and so increasing levels of education became more pervasive, more available and more needed as time has gone on, but for unionized millions the skills needed on an assembly line meant that a high school education was sufficient. As we have become a more technological, information driven economy with factory jobs on the decline, the college degree has replaced the high school degree as the base line. So change in the nature of work drives changes in educational needs.

The adult learner, like kids who attend urban schools and are by definition categorized as deficit, are also marginalized. The traditional academic community has assumed that you are available for classes and meetings during the 9-5 periods when most faculty want to teach and most administrators want to work. That does not allow for the possibility that the student may have other obligations including jobs, kids , spouses or elderly parents all demanding their attention.

Yet it is my experience that these students who may not come to college with all the best preparation for college—in part, because of the failures in the k-12 system, also come with high degrees of motivation. A seventeen year old may not know why they are going to college other than they were expected to do so, may see it as a chance to party hearty, or a space to not make decisions. When thrust into the work world with the reality of paying one’s own way or for the needs of others, clarity hits. The adult learner may have more reason to manage time better, a child to be a role model for, a rent to pay and new aspirations won from seeing all that can be available with a degree. Adult learners in the classes and on the campuses I have seen do. They have a persistence and drive that is awe inspiring.

Yet they are given the short end of the educational stick. It is no surprise that “colleges” that specialize in vocations have found this niche and built themselves around online and flexible schedules, little in “wasted” requirements and access to administrative services beyond 9 to 5. They also often, however, do this at a premium in price and no guarantee of the real learning that will enhance the student for the long term or a job at the end. It is interesting that these schools like Phoenix and other for-profit schools are also beacons for others characterized as non-traditional—a category that can include a higher proportion of minority, first generation, low-income students and veterans. That is to say the same students failed by the k-12 system.

Given the reality that we do not have enough people trained to do the jobs that are now and will become available, and that there are schools struggling to maintain viability. There is an opportunity here to do well by these students in some ways that are traditional and some that are not.

First let’s not abandon the general education (aka—the liberal arts). Dean Matthew Santirocco at New York University, in speaking of the liberal arts, once put it this way: “Its goal is less to convey a body of knowledge than to present the chief approaches to understanding our world… [I]t should develop in you the breadth, agility and flexibility that will enable you to embark on a lifetime of learning and to adapt to a rapidly changing world. In fact, seen in this way, the liberal arts are an eminently practical education.” Indeed interestingly, he has been tapped to bring this perspective to the NYU Shanghai campus. There are general skills that are needed in the workplace including communications and critical thinking and then there are the particular skills that apply only to certain jobs like graphic design. A good education will provide both according to the goals and needs of the student.

Second, revise the way colleges work so that, like the for-profits, there are more options for seeing advisers or taking classes during non-traditional hours. Work shifts for administrative functions like the registrar, career services or financial aid could be 7 AM to 2 and 2 to 7, making for flex schedules that also allow adults to get the services and information they need at times that allow them to deal with work and family. Class hours in many places are already more flexible and can even be online and interactive via skype.
Third, acknowledge that adults will come with varying skill levels sometimes the result of inadequate early preparation and sometimes just the function of having been away from algebra for an eon or two. Allow for some low-cost catch-up classes (avoid the stigma of remediation) so that returnees can get what they need without using up valuable Pell credits and funds.

Having family in Italy, the US contingent of us just decided to take Italian—parents, grandma and kids. We will be learning intergenerationally. As it should be. Learning does not belong only to the young. It is for all who need it when they need it. We should always be adult learners.

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