The NCSL Blog


By Andrew Smalley

The challenges facing adult students, the role of competency-based education, and potential state policy solutions were highlights of the Legislative Policy Bootcamp: Serving Adult Learners in Higher Education held last month in Salt Lake City.

NCSL Associate Director Sunny Deye and Senior Legislative Director Austin Reid present on state higher education policy trends at the Legislative Policy Boot Camp: Serving Adult Learners in Higher Education.The meeting began by focusing on the growing number of challenges faced by adult students as they pursue a postsecondary degree or credential.

“When we think about today’s student’s needs, they really go outside the bounds of what has traditionally been a higher education conversation,” Julie Peller, executive director of Higher Learning Advocates, explained. “Almost half of students on campus are over the age of 25. The students under the age of 25 are very much working and have household responsibilities as well.”

Legislators and speakers discussed these responsibilities and costs beyond tuition including, housing, childcare, transportation and food insecurity.

“We saw students sitting in their cars in parking lots or at McDonald's to access free public Wi-Fi. One student talked about writing an entire paper on her phone,” Peller said. “We see that 18% of students are eligible for SNAP but only 3% receive benefits. Affordability for adults certainly means tuition, textbooks, and fees, but it also means work loss and making ends meet for their family.”

One strategy for supporting adult learners is to make credit-for-prior learning (CPL) programs more effective.

“There’s no standard for what makes for a good CPL program, every institution does it differently. There is a lot of variability,” said Becky Klein-Collins, vice president of Impact at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

“Some state polices give more direction and some requirements. One of the most common state policies is requiring institutions to award credit for military training and that is really important, because we have thousands of members who are going through taxpayer-funded training.”

Meeting attendees also learned about competency-based education at postsecondary institutions. Competency-based education broadly refers to education in which learning progresses based on demonstrated mastery as opposed to fixed units of time. For example, online institutions such as Western Governors University, allow students to progress through competencies while paying a flat-rate tuition for six months.

Leaders in the Utah higher education community spoke about their experiences implementing competency-based education in the state.

“It is a very powerful tool for adult learners right now.” James R. Taggart, president of Ogden-Weber Technical College, said. “Often the barriers to completion are not necessarily cost, the barriers are time. So many of our adult students are working. CBE is a measure to help students who have time limitations.”

“It is very individualized learning and that is very different for some faculty,” Deneece Huftalin, president of Salt Lake City Community College, said. “Finding the right faculty to do it is essential.”

Attendees and presenters focused on how competency-based approaches, along with other student supports can help adult students returning to higher education.

“More than 30 million adults have some college and no degree. We need to build better pathways for those adults to go back into education,” Peller said. “Learners don’t live in silos. We need to start thinking about pathways to and through higher education in a new way.”

Andrew Smalley is a policy associate in NCSL's Education Program.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.