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Shifting from Student to Learner

The stereotype of pausing one’s life between 18 and 24 years of age for four years to enroll in Leafy State University and then go find a career is no longer the true 21st-century experience for most American college students.

In fact, “nearly 4 out of 5 college students are working part-time while studying for their degrees, averaging 19 hours a week,” according to a Huffington Post piece. Furthermore, a report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research notes that “nationally, student parents make up 26 percent of the total undergraduate student body” since “the number of student parents in the United States climbed by 1.1 million, or 30 percent – from 3.7 million in 2004 to 4.8 million in 2012.” Rather than living in an idyllic college dream, purely focused on intellectual development, college students are increasingly juggling work, family, and other demands.

In my roles as Vice President of Strategic Development and an Associate Faculty member for Norco College, I see these types of students every day. By working both one-on-one with undergraduates and at a broader administrative level, I’ve seen real American college students’ struggles and successes. I’ve also devised and executed cross-functional strategies to help them graduate on time, find fulfilling careers, and accomplish their goals, all with the support of their educational institution and a very talented team of professionals by their side.

One of the most important takeaways from my work is that we, as higher education professionals, need to change our vocabulary and shift our focus from “student” to “learner.” Below, I explain what this means and how it could benefit all undergraduates.

Why a “One-Size-Fits-All” College Education Doesn’t Work

Given that students have to balance increasingly complex personal, professional, and familial responsibilities, the traditional “college experience” simply doesn’t work for many undergraduates.

As I mention above, most American college students are over 25 years old. In many regions nationally, the number of traditionally-aged high school graduates is declining. Incumbent workers, veterans, and lifelong learners increasingly fill college classrooms. They aren’t able to attend classes in the middle of the day, when they have to be at work, or stop by professors’ office hours in the late afternoon, when they have to pick up their children from preschool. Many simply cannot pause their life for four years of a full-time residential experience.

In addition, today’s real college students have different viewpoints and goals than “traditional” learners. Conventional college students are trying to figure out their purpose and what they want to do with their lives. In many ways, this is an intensely intellectual, personal process of self-discovery. In contrast, many adult learners today are expeditiously working to elevate their social and vocational status. Individuals over 25 typically enroll in school to try and advance in the profession they’ve already chosen. They often seek very specific outcomes for the path they’re already pursuing.

Essentially, adult-age learners have a very different set of needs than the quintessential 18-24 year-old college young adult. While both types of students are completely valid, educational institutions must do a better job of assisting their more mature, working learners.

The Future is Flexible

Rather than rigidly sticking to more conventional practices alone, colleges must become more adaptable and focus on serving their undergraduates’ needs.

There are a variety of ways schools can do so. For example, Western Governors University provides very flexible educational programs. Undergraduates take courses online and the university emphasizes competency rather than completion of coursework, stressing that learners develop skills rather than just finish coursework.

Western Governors University also focuses on the “shelf life” of the content they teach. Especially due to the rapid advancement of technology in today’s world of work, they categorize educational experiences as “short shelf life learning” and “long shelf life learning.”

Short shelf life learning might be a course in an up-and-coming software program that is likely to change in the next five years, such as a particular edition of Photoshop or a specific feature of Wordpress. Long shelf life learning could include fundamental business management strategies or basic statistical coursework that students can use throughout their careers.

A bit closer to home for me, I’m proud to note that the California Community College system is currently launching a 115th college to serve the 8-10 million residents in California that are underemployed. The primary mission of our newest public college (named Calbright) is to up-skill these individuals and lift them out of working poverty.

According to a recent profile of Calbright in Ed Source, “its programs promise to offer hands-on, face-to-face training at job sites, supplemented by online material and testing” to make earning a degree both convenient and productive. Its curriculum is similarly modern, practical, and thoughtful. Calbright plans “to establish three initial courses, in medical coding, cyber security, and information technology — all expected to be tuition free with subsidies from the companies seeking training for their workers.” In this way, Calbright will serve students’ and businesses’ needs well. These are the types of innovative, inclusive initiatives that all schools should be spearheading.

Learning to Be “Learners”

In the notable Higher Education Act of 1965’s 846 pages, lawmakers use the word “student” 3,698 times. They use the word “learner” a total of four times. While this may seem like a merely semantic complaint, it actually signals a more significant issue in higher education.

Many of us wax poetic about the value of “lifelong learning,” but we don’t actually implement this philosophy in our day-to-day practices and methodologies. Higher education should shift from thinking about students as temporary clients of a college, there to complete courses and gain degrees. Our schools should (re)define students as learners, individuals who are actively engaged in skill development and self-betterment. While the particular intellectual enhancement and academic awareness they receive from your educational institution may only last for a few years, it should set them up for decades of continuous improvement and, ideally, inspire them to constantly acquire new knowledge.

For instance, I have earned five degrees, but am now learning an entirely new digital approach/software solution in order to transform my institution of higher education into a connected campus. I am learning, and leading, the development of a robust digital communications strategy and technological integration. In fact, I am typing this article from the global Salesforce Higher Education Summit. At this event, over 2,500 professionals like myself are learning to use artificial intelligence, CRM solutions, and digital customization to improve student experiences. In addition to these types of professional conferences, I am teaching myself twenty-first century skills by utilizing informational interviews, online content consumption, and industry certification training – but no traditional class enrollment.

My learning process never stops. I hope to help the learners I influence approach their expertise and education in the same way.

Are You Ready to Make the Shift?

Adjusting to college students’ changing needs can seem like a daunting task, but it starts small. After all, even the words you use can make a huge impact on your institution’s outlook. I encourage you to reexamine the language your college uses in its policies, student handbooks, websites, and marketing materials. If you’re still portraying your pupils as stereotypical students, think about how you can reimagine them as lifelong learners.

In addition, I urge you to scrutinize the true shelf-life of your courses – are you teaching your students skills they can take into the working world? If not, I recommend you explore seamlessly braiding traditional classroom experiences with out-of-classroom and work-based learning opportunities. Your curriculum can make even more of a difference in your students’ lives if it’s tied in to practical, relevant, career-building activities.

If you need help with, have questions about, or simply want to start a dialogue regarding any of the above, please leave a comment below! It’s time.

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