Peer Review

Strategies for Becoming Adult-Learning-Focused Institutions

Since the 1970s, the number of adults in postsecondary education has increased steadily, and today, learners aged twenty-five and older are the fastest-growing population at our nation’s colleges and universities. The reasons for this trend are many—a growing awareness that higher education credentials can lead to greater individual economic success, a shift in our economy from manufacturing to service industry jobs, and the constant economic changes that require workers to change jobs and even industries multiple times over the course of their careers. The most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics (2008) indicate that nearly 40 percent of all college enrollments are students aged twenty-five or older—with actual numbers that are likely much higher today than projected, due to the economic recession that is driving individuals back to school.

Colleges and universities are recognizing the significant size of their adult learner populations, and are realizing that the adult learner has needs and faces barriers that are different from those of the “traditional” student. If institutions find ways to remove those barriers, they could help more of our population achieve higher levels of educational attainment. While this goal is important for individual economic well-being and career growth and for strengthening our nation’s overall economic competitiveness, colleges and universities may also realize a significant new source of enrollments and revenue.

While recent trends are seeing a brighter spotlight to shine on this population, there has been much research done on this issue for many years. For example, K. Patricia Cross’s research several years ago sketched out a number of barriers, the standard classifications of which are personal, attitudinal, and structural (Cross 1981). Personal or situational barriers include those that are related to lack of time (due to work schedules, family obligations, dependent care, health issues, etc.) and lack of money. Attitudinal or dispositional barriers refer to how people view their ability to succeed at education and training, with many people burdened by fear of failure, particularly if they had not been successful in school earlier in their lives. Structural or institutional barriers are those that the schools themselves may create —for example, by offering classes only during the daytime or only in sixteen-week semesters.

Building on this research, leading institutions have worked hard for many years to remove barriers to adult learners, in many cases implementing some or all of what the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) has come to call the Principles of Effectiveness for Serving Adult Learners. We call the colleges and universities that implement these principles Adult Learning Focused Institutions (ALFIs). Developed in 1999 from benchmarking research with APQC (a company specializing in benchmarking, knowledge management, measurement, and process improvement) and then later refined, the ALFI principles address learning barriers through a variety of policies and practices.

Principles of Effectiveness for Serving Adult Learners

ALFI Toolkit

The ALFI Assessment Toolkit consists of two instruments: the Institutional Self-Assessment Survey (ISAS) and the Adult Learner Inventory ™ (ALI). Taken together, the surveys provide a powerful tool for colleges and universities that want to align institutional policy and structure with the needs of adult learners enrolled in credit-bearing programs.
Used together, the Institutional Self–Assessment Survey and the Adult Learner Inventory compare faculty and administration views of existing adult programs with the actual perceptions of adult learners.
Institutions using the tools receive a report that provides:
  • a detailed campus report on the findings from both surveys
  • comparative data on how the perceptions of adult students match up to the perceptions of faculty and administration
  • national benchmarking data to compare an institution’s results with institutions serving adults nationwide

Based on the nine principles below, CAEL, the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, and higher education consulting firm Noel-Levitz have developed the ALFI Toolkit to help institutions assess their effectiveness in serving adults. Colleges and universities have used the ALFI tools for a variety of purposes, including internal program review and development of strategic plans, but especially for focusing institutional attention on adult learner needs and issues (see sidebar for more information on the ALFI toolkit).

The ALFI principles (see fig. 1) are described below and adapted to include examples of policies and practices that colleges and universities could embrace in order to recruit, prepare for, and welcome adult learners.

Figure 1. CAEL’s Principles of Effectiveness for Serving Adult Learners

The institution conducts its outreach to adult learners by overcoming barriers of time, place, and tradition in order to create lifelong access to educational opportunities.
Life and Career Planning
The institution addresses adult learners’ life and career goals before or at the onset of enrollment in order to assess and align its capacities to help learners reach their goals.
The institution promotes choice using an array of payment options for adult learners in order to expand equity and financial flexibility.
Assessment of Learning Outcomes
The institution defines and assesses the knowledge, skills, and competencies acquired by adult learners both from the curriculum and from life/work experience in order to assign credit and confer degrees with rigor.
Teaching–Learning Process
The institution’s faculty uses multiple methods of instruction (including experiential and problem-based methods) for adult learners in order to connect curricular concepts to useful knowledge and skills.
Student Support Systems
The institution assists adult learners using comprehensive academic and student support systems in order to enhance students’ capacities to become self-directed, lifelong learners.
The institution uses information technology to provide relevant and timely information and to enhance the learning experience.
Strategic Partnerships
The institution engages in strategic relationships, partnerships, and collaborations with employers and other organizations in order to develop and improve educational opportunities for adult learners.
The institution supports guided pathways that lead into and from its programs and services in order to ensure that students' learning will apply usefully to achieving their educational and career goals.



In the ALFI model, special outreach designed to engage adult learners helps overcome barriers in time, place, and tradition to create better access to educational opportunities. Potential students need to be aware of programs that meet their needs and need to know how to access these programs. Strategies to reach out in a concerted way to adult learners could include specialized marketing materials (for example, with photos of adult learners) and advertising campaigns. Adult learners are not just interested in personal enrichment but also in retraining, refreshing workplace skills, and preparing for new careers. The outreach strategies need to acknowledge those very real goals and show how the institution is prepared to help the adult learner reach them.

Life and Career Planning

Providing and equipping career and educational advisers to help with decision making is an important strategy for helping adults—many of whom do not know what kind of program to pursue, how to get started, and how to make it all happen given individual life circumstances. Adults’ learning goals need to be achievable and get them where they want to be in within their timeframe. Having someone help identify the range of options available and provide information on labor market demands for particular skills is critical to ensure a successful learning experience. This may mean finding ways to make certain that college advisers are well-trained in a range of career opportunities and the kinds of education and training that are needed for those opportunities. Adults will likely need to have access to these educational and career advising services during non-work hours or have options such as phone or online appointments to accommodate their busy schedules.


One of adult learners’ most significant barriers to postsecondary education is, of course, the cost. Some working adults may be able to rely on assistance from employers through tuition assistance benefits to pursue college degrees, but these benefits will not be available to all individuals seeking lifelong learning, and even those who have tuition assistance benefits may not be able to use the benefits for some purposes—for example, to pursue a completely different line of work.

Colleges and universities serving adult learners need to provide them with information about accessing financial aid or payment plans and with information about what options are available for part-time students. Institutions should make sure that their own financial aid practices do not penalize the part-time or one-class-at-a-time student.

Other financial assistance options may be on the horizon as policymakers and stakeholders begin to realize the value of a skilled workforce to local economies. CAEL is currently piloting Lifelong Learning Accounts (LiLAs) in several sites across the country. A LiLA account is an employer-matched, portable, worker-owned account used to finance career-related education and training. It is similar in concept to a 401(k): employee contributions to LiLA education and training accounts are matched by their employers. In the 111th Congress, Congressmen John B. Larson (D-CT), Peter Roskam (R-IL), Jared Polis (D-CO), and Erik Paulsen (R-MN) introduced legislation that would establish LiLAs. This bipartisan support for LiLAs indicates that there may be future opportunities to improve financial support available for adult learners.

Assessment of Learning Outcomes

One way that adult-focused institutions earn their reputations for serving adult learners well is by recognizing the learning outcomes that an adult already has achieved, regardless of where that learning took place. Policies that allow students to apply transfer credits toward general education and even major requirements can minimize the problem of “wasted credits.” In addition, institutions should also recognize previous learning that has occurred outside of institutions altogether.

Adult learners often have college-level knowledge or skills acquired outside the classroom. They may, for example, have several years of work experience they acquired through on-the-job training, workshops and company-sponsored training, and leadership or technical responsibilities. Adult learners also may have served or be currently serving in the military, gaining a range of learning through formal training, informal on-the-job learning, and leadership experience. Adults also have countless opportunities in their everyday lives for self-directed learning or learning that happens through volunteer work, hobbies, and other activities. Some of this learning is comparable to college-level instruction.

An important institutional strategy to try to capture the college-level knowledge that adults have already gained from their experience is prior learning assessment, or PLA, a term for a variety of approaches that evaluate an individual’s learning from work and life experience for college credit. PLA comes in many forms—including written exams and portfolio evaluations—and many colleges and universities nationwide already offer some kind of PLA to their students. Expanding these services and making them more widely available and recognized is important for helping adults reach their learning and career goals more quickly. For colleges and universities that do not have the capacity to provide such services in-house, CAEL has recently launched, an online PLA service for institutions and individual learners.

Teaching–Learning Process

The way in which instruction is delivered is an important factor that can contribute to an adult learner’s success, with some of the best strategies being those that treat the learner’s own life and work experiences as valuable contributions to the learning process.

For adults using education to prepare for and pursue new careers, it may also be more effective for the material to be presented using the language and problems that will arise in the workplace. Adults may also want the courses to be delivered in smaller and more accelerated modules than the traditional sixteen-week semester—an approach favored by many colleges that specialize in helping adult students get in, get the learning they need, and get out again.

Student Support Systems

In thirty-six years of serving adult learners, CAEL has found that they have many life challenges and responsibilities to manage while trying to pursue education. In addition to working, adult learners may need to care for young dependents or ailing parents, manage a household, deal with family crises or illnesses, and so on. Systems for supporting the adult learner and helping him or her succeed despite all of these challenges are very important and can include advising, mentoring, financial advising and assistance, new student orientation, and guidance throughout a student’s academic career. Clear curricular maps and career pathways, as well as prior learning assessment, can also help adults navigate toward their goals.

Adult learners may also need the human connection outside the classroom to help them feel that they belong at the institution and that they have people to whom they can turn for help and guidance. The feelings of alienation can be quite acute for many adults, particularly when significant age differences exist between them and their classmates, as well as between them and some of their instructors. The availability of peer support groups can help overcome these barriers.


Technology is an important factor in providing adult learners with what they need to succeed in college and in the workplace. The institution should use information technology to provide relevant and timely information and to enhance the learning experience. Exemplary use of technology should bridge geographical barriers to learning, provide flexible and timely administrative services, and expand the choices for learning modes.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that none of these exemplary technology practices do any good if the adult learner is not comfortable with technology in the first place—a particular concern for adult learners in the older age ranges. Colleges and universities will need to find ways to reach out to those students, determine their needs, and help them develop the technology skills they will need to succeed both in class and in their hoped-for career.

Strategic Partnerships

Adult-learner-focused institutions often succeed with adult learners by forming strategic alliances with local organizations and employers to ensure that workers learn about educational opportunities and that students learn about work opportunities. Colleges and universities can leverage these relationships to ensure that their curricula and practices remain relevant and current. As colleges and universities consider how best to serve adults and their various reasons for returning to learning, these partnerships become even more important.

Connecting Educational Experiences

Institutions can help adult learners persist and succeed in their studies by explicitly recognizing the connections between the current educational experience and both its antecedents and consequences. For example, institutions focused on adult learners will have concluded articulation agreements with a wide variety of other institutions in the region. They will also have helped their students with transitions to employment by providing opportunities for internships with local employers, community agencies, and labor unions.

The ALFI principles are integrated, indivisible, and imperative. Working together, the principles help ensure that adult learners will succeed in their academic endeavors and attain their educational objectives. Colleges and universities can help adult learners by using these principles as a guide to recognizing adults’ learning needs, addressing their barriers, and honoring the experience that they bring to the learning environment. Institutions should consider a number of different strategies:

  • adopting marketing approaches that reflect adult learners’ concerns, respect their ambitions, and recognize their learning goals
  • assisting adult learners in identifying jobs and related educational paths for what they want to achieve in their careers
  • providing training and support services at times and in places that are accessible to adults who may be working full time
  • assisting with new strategies for financing learning, such as Lifelong Learning Accounts
  • providing avenues for adult learners to accelerate the learning process —or at least minimize the need for them to sit through what they already learned elsewhere
  • honoring the life and work experiences of older learners, both in the classroom and in campus life generally
  • helping to close the generational digital divide, so that adult learners of all ages are more comfortable with the technology that they will need to use both for education and in their careers
  • working closely with employers, community-based organizations, economic development agencies, and the government to design and offer new workforce learning programs that meet the labor force needs of local economies and the ambitions of adults.
  • helping adult learners connect their current educational efforts with both their past and their future.

With these strategies, colleges and universities will pave the way for adults to succeed in postsecondary learning and degree-earning.


Adults as Learners: Increasing Participation and Facilitating Learning. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Yankelovich, Daniel. 2005. “Ferment and Change: Higher Education in 2015.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. November 25.

Rebecca Klein-Collins is the director of research at the Council of Adult and Experiential Learning.

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