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Courageous Learning: Supporting Adult Learners

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Think about this for a moment. There are approximately 35 million Americans aged 25 to 64 who have some college experience but no degree. According to Anthony Carnavale, Director of the Center on Education and Workforce at Georgetown University, nearly 50 million jobs disappeared during the recession and they aren’t coming back. In 1970, 25 percent of all Americans worked in factories. Today, it’s less than 10 percent. What do these seemingly disparate statistics have to do with each other? They represent the new normal explored in the recent documentary, Courageous Learning, that takes a closer look at the lives of three adult students—Shawn, Angeline and Joe—as they attempt to navigate our evolving economy and current state of education.
The Overlooked Answer to Closing the Achievement Gap
According to Andrew P. Kelley, Director of the Center on Higher Education Reform, those with higher learning degrees and certificates were more insulated from job and income loss, while those with only a high school diploma “fell off the cliff” during the most recent recession. So how do we move the 36 million often overlooked “post-traditional” adult learners in our country to a state of college completion? We state a case for change in the way we approach and provide education. The world is vastly different now than when most higher education institutions were conceptualized and business models were created. According to John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College and the documentary’s executive producer, “We need to go back to the idea that education is a societal good. It’s something we all have responsibility for.”
Non-degreed Veterans Return Unqualified for the Workforce
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For civilian employers, a college degree wasn’t optional. They require a bachelor’s degree. At one point, I had 211 semester hours and no degree. I just finished my degree after 26 years. – Shawn.

Shawn is a veteran working full-time while raising a family. After two decades in high-level national intelligence roles in the military, he cannot qualify for a civilian job in project management because he lacks a bachelor’s degree. Like many career military, the lack of degree isn’t for lack of trying. He moved every year and a half for the first decade of his military service. Only a margin of his existing credits were accepted when he transferred between educational institutions. Accredited online education was not prevalent, so he was forced to find the local college or university (typically a community college) and start from scratch with each move. At one point his transcript included more than 200 successfully completed semester credit hours. “Like Shawn, I had a similar experience in my own life,” said Ebersole. “I left the military with 180 semester credit hours and no degree. That is a reflection of the requirements that existed at that time. We need new models for today.”
Alternate Modes of Assessment to Aid Transfer Credit
These models can include credit by exam, credit by recommendation and competency-based assessments. “At Excelsior, the students we serve are, on average, 38 years old,” said Ebersole. “They bring us five transcripts in transfer. There is no such thing here as a first-time, full-time student,” referring to the demographic by which IPEDS calculates highly publicized graduation rates for colleges and universities. “We require students to demonstrate not only that they have this prior learning experience, but also that they got something from it,” said Ebersole. In showing what they know, students are able to transfer credits and earn an affordable and timely degree. “We have more than 70 exams today and remain the largest and oldest competency-based education system. We focus on skill performance. As one employer we work with put it, ‘I don’t give a damn what you say you know, I want to know what you can do.’”
The Cost of Transfer Loss
These assessment models have paid off for students, employers and taxpayers. Excelsior College accepted more than 600,000 semester credit hours in transfer last year. If they had to retake those credits again, Ebersole estimates the cost at more than $263 million dollars to these veterans, working adults and taxpayers.
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I used to always tell my husband my goal was to go back for nursing school. How am I going to work and go back to school? – Angeline.

Helping more working adults is not only a question of improving transfer credit, it’s a question of improving access in terms of helping them balance their lives with their work and their studies. This is seen in the story of nursing student Angeline as she struggles to raise a family, work three 12-hour shifts weekly, as well as build knowledge and skills in her nursing career. “We know that online learning fits most adult learners like a glove,” says Ebersole. “It’s not an issue of distance. It’s an issue of time. We need to give them the option to move the time for coursework around.”
Average Household Income Declining
Ebersole believes a sweeping generalization or ideology against for-profit education is hurting adult learners and their earning capabilities. “Restrictions are too broadly delivered via regulations to all accredited institutions when only a handful have been a problem and others have served diverse populations well. Regulating against all of that sector is like punishing the entire class with detention because one student chewed gum,” he said.
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I had been out of school for eight years and had to go back to basic math and basic reading. So without the committee college, I wouldn’t have that opportunity. A community college gave me that bridge to the university.- Joseph.

Ebersole recalls listening to former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings warning of a U.S. that doesn’t have the workforce we need for the economy we want, and if actions weren’t taken we could expect to see a decrease in a the standard of living. “Today, we can see that that the median household income has decreased by $5,000 – $6,000 from 2008,” Ebersole said. The third student in the documentary speaks to concerns about the time and cost a traditional four year degree will require on his low income household as a struggling single father of two young children.
The Courage to Push Through
The Courageous Learning title is a reflection of the fear adult learners face returning to college, and the courage it takes to persevere. Ebersole and William B. Patrick, a faculty instructor at Fairfield University’s MFA program had previously published the book Courageous Learning as a resource for working adults and educators wanting to help adults overcome the obstacles they face on the path to professional and personal success. The book incudes discussions from thought leaders and policy makers for education reform including Martha Kanter, Mark Milliron, Margaret Spellings and James Applegate. ** Link here to learn more about the documentary, to view trailers, or to order the book. See courageouslearning.com**