Harkin Report and Best Practices in Working with Adult Students

A few weeks ago I read an interview with Rich Novak from Rutgers (also past president of UPCEA) in EvoLLLution (http://www.evolllution.com/opinions/audio-making-higher-education-more-accessible-and-affordable-for-adults/). Rich did a great job of outlining the hurdles adult students face when coming back to school, I recommend it as a “must read.”

I was drawn back to re-reading Rich’s interview after I read the Harkin Report (see the Executive Summary at http://www.help.senate.gov/imo/media/for_profit_report/ExecutiveSummary.pdf). This is a very troubling report looking at for-profit higher education institutions. While the report focused on for-profit institutions, when I think about the best practices outlined by Rich, I realized that I can do some soul searching as well about how well my institution addresses the hurdles for adult learners. Three specific hurdles come to mind:

1)    Are we working with students to find the right fit for the degree program they need/want to pursue?

The Harkin Report found that for-profit institutions spend more money on marketing and recruiting than on instruction. It also suggested that some institutions engaged in aggressive and sometimes misleading and deceptive recruiting practices. As the online higher education marketplace becomes more and more competitive, I think we all need to stop and ask whether we are so focused on generating leads and enrolling students that we may not be taking the time to ensure that we’ve helped the student find the right degree to meet their needs.  I know that I must continue to be mindful of the fact that, as the Harkin report indicates, we are working with a population who may be unfamiliar with traditional higher education and we have an obligation to help them navigate the system.

2)    Are we providing on-going services that help students to persist in courses and to persist to graduation?

From the Harkin Report: “The investigation found that while for-profit colleges make large investments in staff to recruit new students, once a student is enrolled that same level of service is often not available.” I need to ask myself, are we spending more time to get them started and not enough time on helping them to the finish line? We learned from a recent survey by UPCEA and InsideTrack that it appears that institutions are not tracking retention and degree completion for their adult students (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/07/11/accreditor-will-require-colleges-stop-ignoring-adult-student-retention).  I applaud all those institutions that are tracking this and putting processes into place to assist adult students in persisting to degree. It seems clear to me we need to be in the business of not only tracking but also assisting with degree completion.  I am proud of the efforts that our private and public higher education institutions have demonstrated in addressing these challenges. By tracking degree completion we can better tell our story concerning the pivotal role professional and continuing education units play in reaching the goal of having more individuals with degrees to keep the US competitive.

3)    Are we addressing the cost of higher education? This goes beyond providing opportunities for adult students to have access to funds (loans, scholarships, etc.), but also includes looking at ways to keep the cost down for students.

The Harkin Report suggested that “for-profit colleges are rapidly increasing their reliance on taxpayer dollars” by receiving federal financial aid dollars as well as Department of Defense Tuition Assistance benefits.  I believe that this finding is another example of a systematic problem we have in higher education; rather than looking for ways to reduce the cost of higher education, we find ways for students to have access to funds to pay the increasing costs of higher education.  There are a number of efforts across the country where states and institutions are exploring ways to keep the cost of a four year education under $10,000 (http://www.texastribune.org/texas-education/higher-education/texas-state-university-system-unveils-10000-degree/).  In addition, companies like Straighterline are providing access through innovative costing approaches.  Another approach to assist with controlling cost is recognizing the experience adults bring by providing competency assessments (whether this be a portfolio of prior learning or the efforts of WGU’s competency-based assessments and recently the University of Wisconsin’s Flexible Degree (http://www.onlinecolleges.net/2012/06/19/university-of-wisconsin-creates-competency-based-model-for-online-degrees/).

There is no doubt that the Harkin Report demonstrates that there are severe problems that must be addressed by the for-profits that are more concerned about profits than student learning.

At the same time, I also know that we should not judge all for-profits with a broad stroke.  I do agree with the Harkin Report that the “for-profit colleges have an important role to play in higher education.”

This report could reverberate in our higher education community for a long time to come, and the responses are going to be interesting to watch.

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