After returning from the AAACE Conference in Lexington last fall, I needed time to digest the impact. I met some fabulous people and have had productive followups. But, in the main, my head has been spinning with issues about continuing education for adults. This population is little-studied and perhaps less-understood because it runs the gamut in age, race, goals, hopes, and literacy levels. Wisely, no one at the conference offered simple solutions to fit such diversity. Instead, I heard much analysis of why adults should return to finish their education:
Since 50% of entering freshmen straight from high school must take remedial classes to polish skills required for success in college, where does that leave the adult students. While some must start on the lowest rungs of the literacy ladder, others who dropped out of high school must first gain a GED before going onto higher education. Many college applicants seek to have their work and military experience assessed for credit hours. Two new developments complicate this matter further. 1) some colleges are looking to change what constitutes a credit hour; 2) Florida legislature rumbles with hints of stopping remedial college classes, hints that could grow into a trend nationwide.
CURRENT SITUATION: When deciding to continue their education, some adults have set goals, especially those returning to complete a degree begun earlier. However, many want counseling to find a career field fit for the future job market. No matter which position, adult students often need unique moral support: practical, financial, cultural, emotional, and psychological. 1) Most have jobs and families. 2) College costs keep rising. 3) A sudden mixing with new people disrupts their comfort zone. 4) Past failure in school, incarceration, or addiction holds them hostage. 5) A looming mountain of “what-ifs” can prove defeating. 6) Constant changes in university programs does not bode well with adults who may not finish courses but simply prefer the workaday formats rather than stay around the perceptible confusion of institutions locked in a flux over who they are and what they offer.
My wisdom hopes academia will resist trying to devise perfect programs that never get off the ground or, even worse, turning adult students into a new category of victims whose diverse deficiencies can only be met with university and/or government answers. Such splayed efforts beg the question of what adult students really need, as per the conference’s keynote speaker, Professor Robert Kegan. He stressed the need to encourage “transformation” by moving adults away from the fear of a forced or chosen career change and to an onward move toward the love of lifelong learning.
Hence, transformation became the week’s watchword. In theater, “transformation” does not refer to a mere change but a yielding to or a trusting of the change agents. But whom do adult students trust to help in their transformation since educators keep changing their ideas of what is needed. Since the 1960s, academia has been in a constant change mode, often in disruptive change as disorienting as a 52-card pickup. Exchanging traditional studies for whimsical winds blowing across campuses and society has not brought metamorphoses but rather upheaval. Multiple experimental programs have denigrated traditional values, values that once united us and produced strong graduates who would contribute to society.
Meanwhile, semesters keep passing, unprepared students keep graduating, or results remain disappointing. Anecdotally, I find adult students, whom we hope to help succeed, only want a solid base, a springboard to their own individual goals. For example, in art, a painter once had to draw a complete rendering before delving into abstract expression. Musicians were required to read music before improvising. Classic formal education once produced critical thinkers and creative problem solvers who invented products to fit a need. Research scientists joined applied engineers to put a man on the moon. That regimen could still attract busy adults.
Hence, without reasoned, long-term change in education, we have a conundrum of too much change or the wrong kind as noted in the old adage, “all change is not progress.” At all levels of education, many changes do not even stick around long enough to prevent bad results much less to nourish true transformation.
Since I attended the conference primarily to collect ideas on advancing literacy and the lack of readiness in students for academic rigors, I found many sessions merely comprised of doctoral abstracts. Although well done, the scholastic papers seemed indecisive and too theoretical for application, even. However, the panel groups did offer sound discussions on more germane issues: 1) the readiness of institutions for an influx of adult students; 2) the readiness of institutions to prepare for market drifts such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).
Whereas a few presenters had found answers to their narrow issues, others relied heavily on the need for more study and ended their talks with a request for more funding from government agencies. The cycle of more study>grants>funding>incomplete results>need for more grants to complete/extend studies seemed endless, misguided, and unable to grasp the business term, “good enough.”
Being a practical person myself, I longed to find anyone willing to step out of the research mode and dare to move on without all the facts in place. I remember Bonnie Pruden did just that to great acclaim. After being the President’s first Chairman for Physical Fitness and captain on two Olympic ski teams, she created the Pain Erasure clinic in Massachusetts and bravely said, “I can either spend years doing a double-blind study to see if my method works or I can help people out of their pain, starting now.”
Sometimes I think we get enthralled in studying some remote, finite issues only because someone will fund it. Perhaps hungry minds and bellies could otherwise use the money.