ASU+GSV Day Two: Creating a student-centered improvement cycle leads to increased access & equity

Guild is proud to be a Sponsor Partner of the 2021 ASU+GSV Summit. In honor of the summit’s spirit of shared learning, Guild has launched this three-day blog series in which we share key learnings and daily takeaways from ASU+GSV.


Increasing access and equity has been a major theme across panels at ASU+GSV. While sharing the importance of creating equitable access and opportunity for working adult students is sure to garner enthusiastic head nods, figuring out how to approach and build the infrastructure necessary to do it is trickier territory. Today, three Guilders participated in ASU+GSV panel conversations, all of which touched on this important theme.

The pressure around access and equity comes from knowing how important it is to get it right. Fear of failure can stymie efforts before they even begin. One way to counter a sense of  immobilization is to think in terms of a cycle of improvement that leverages good culture and good outcomes to keep the momentum going. The expectation then becomes continuous improvement, rather than a single solution for multiple, complex, systems-level challenges. 

Improvement Cycle

An internal culture of inclusion and innovation can expand access to working adult students.

The cycle begins at the institutional level. In a panel discussion about the future of higher education moderated by Guild Senior Strategist Michael Horn, Ruth Watkins, President of Strada Impact at Strada Education points out that higher education seems more interested than ever in finding new ways to help meet student needs: “Institutions are more collaborative in creative strategies to help students access and persist.” Fostering a culture of inclusion means a willingness to hear and act on ideas and feedback from internal stakeholders. As Paul Freedman indicated yesterday, incentivizing innovation can help lead to a culture that normalizes and values sharing ideas.

Of course, the most critical stakeholders to include in conversations centered on better meeting working adult student needs are working adult students themselves —an extraordinarily diverse group. Greg Fowler, President of the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC), challenges higher ed to acknowledge that inclusion requires higher ed leaders to turn feedback into outcomes metrics to which their institutions must be held accountable. “We need to be clear about what you can hold us accountable for when you leave,” he says, emphasizing that colleges have to be comfortable with being explicit about what students can expect. As institutions  measure performance against these expectations, areas of improvement will become clearer.

An indisputable way to meet working adult student expectations is to provide learning options that make space for pre-existing commitments as well as expertise. The desire to unlock opportunity means that many working adult learners value both flexibility and expediency. A common concern shared across multiple panels at the 2021 ASU+GSV Summit centers around a feeling that students have to “choose” between short-form credentials and degrees. Guild Co-Founder and CEO Rachel Carlson reveals it’s a false dichotomy: short-form credentials can “stack” into degrees, which in themselves carry tremendous value. Furthermore, colleges and universities can work with employers to give students credit for the competencies they gain at work. “It’s about the stack. What are you learning on the job? —I saw a lot of VR at Stanford, but the first time I saw VR applied to a high-quality learning experience was at Walmart as management were preparing staff for Black Friday. It was quality learning,” she says, sharing that if colleges are willing to give credit for yoga, “why shouldn’t Walmart employees get credit for on-the-job learning?” She adds that the ecosystem can work to make that currency translatable by thinking about how learning works together, rather than subscribing to a false narrative around choosing.

Better outcomes for working adults comes from understanding what they seek to achieve and who they are.

Hand-in-hand with accountability is a call to understand what’s driving students to enroll in a particular program in the first place. For working adult learners, that decision is centered on economic and career opportunity. When students see employers and institutions meeting their needs with empathy, they see a pathway to bring the same values into their learning experience and workplace. Scott Pulsipher, President of Western Governors University (WGU), pushes back against the concern some leaders and faculty may have that focusing on the skills working adults need to succeed in the future of work means mortgaging the contribution universities make to creating a responsible citizenry.  “If we’re aware of the customer we’re trying to serve, which is someone who wants a great job, that arguably is one of the single greatest contributors to creating great citizens. They are self-reliant, economically independent and can give that to their children.” 

In fact, roughly half of all working adult students are parents. That brings us to the value of not just understanding the why, but the who. No student can be summed up in a single axis of identity. The more time we take to understand who working adult students are, the more clearly we will see the addressable barriers they face to access and equity. In a separate panel, Guild Senior Vice President of Employer Solutions, Allison Salisbury, points out that roughly 25% of Guild students who stall in their programs do so due to a lack of caregiving infrastructure. This represents an opportunity to do better for frontline workers, who are predominantly women. “Childcare is a venture to help bring more women back into the workforce,” she explains, referring to the massive loss of women from the workforce during to the pandemic. “Combined with education benefits and coaching, women can increase their social capital in a place that demonstrates their talent is valued. People should be able to have family goals and career goals and not have to choose between the two.” This carries generational implications, too: 44% of Guild student parents reported a key reason they stay in school is to make their children proud. 

Done right, creating a progress-oriented cycle centered on a deep understanding of the needs and identities of students will create its own momentum. For more insight into working adult student identity and needs, please visit our Resource Center.

If your institution is ready to serve working adult students, click here to get in touch.

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