Peer Review

From the Editor

In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama restated his national goal to have America attain the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the end of the decade. This challenge has inspired multiple efforts across the country to increase the number of Americans with college degrees. Many have noted that reaching these goals will require educating students from both traditional and nontraditional-aged groups.

While many projects and organizations are focused on increasing the overall number of graduates, AAC&U is also committed to getting all students—including returning adult students—the learning they need to deal with the complexities of the world. As the 2007 Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) Report, College Learning for the New Global Century, stated, “It should be a national priority to ensure that students, whatever their career choices and preparation, become richly prepared for a changing economy, for the option of further study, and for a lifetime of continuous learning—as employees and as citizens.”

Returning adult students—those who attended college but did not persist to graduation—make up an increasing percentage of students matriculating each year to both two- and four-year institutions. To receive a college education that will prepare them for a twenty-first-century challenges, these nontraditional students must have a broad set of learning outcomes, including those developed in technical fields and those developed through the arts and sciences. AAC&U has defined this set of outcomes—called the “essential learning outcomes”—through its LEAP initiative. With the essential learning outcomes as their compass and with participation in programs that focus on the unique learning needs of this population, more adult learners will be able to both graduate and carry with them, throughout their lives, outcomes that will help them navigate a highly competitive and volatile world.

During his January speech, President Obama saluted a fifty-five-year-old furniture factory worker who soon will earn her college degree. I also applaud her accomplishments because I have witnessed another adult learner—my friend Sharon Stephens—pursue her degree at midlife. Through Sharon’s successes and struggles, I’ve learned how challenging it can be for adult students to balance school, work, and family obligations. Sharon, a senior financial analyst for the FDIC, was a classic “swirler” who began her college career at Bowie State at seventeen and over a forty-year span attended five institutions, finally finishing her studies at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), an institution with a successful adult learning program that is profiled later in this issue.

“You know, I don’t really need a degree for promotion purposes,” Sharon shared with me when I asked her to reflect on her college experiences. “I want to graduate more for a sense of personal accomplishment. Plus, I’ve gotten so much from my classes that without them I wouldn’t be where I am now. As a starry-eyed first-year student, I started off planning to major in theater. That changed to poli-sci and finally to management, which turned out to be the major that most encompassed my prior classes.” During her lifelong career at the FDIC, the knowledge and skills Sharon acquired in her college courses allowed her to be promoted to more responsible positions, including that of a bank examiner. “My bank examiner experience equipped me to pursue the prior learning class at UMUC,” she says. Through UMUC’s Prior Learning program, she developed a portfolio that demonstrated her facilities in business and accounting learned during her FDIC work, for which she was granted college credit. Now, almost at the finish line, Sharon’s last two classes are college math and statistics. She hopes to finish her degree in the fall. Sharon’s experience of weaving her knowledge from the classroom into the workplace and back again demonstrates the strides that adult students can make with the proper support and guidance.

This issue of Peer Review features articles that offer best practices in undergraduate education for adult students like Sharon. This collection of articles provides overviews of research on the challenges institutions face in giving all students from a range of ages and circumstances the liberal education outcomes they need to make a better life for themselves—at home, at work, and in the community.

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