ASU+GSV Day One: Higher ed experts share advice on how to better serve working adult learners

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.

In the war for talent, education and upskilling are essential. As education benefits rapidly become the standard across Fortune 1000 companies, employers will pay closer attention than ever to what current and prospective partner academic institutions can offer. Chief among their concerns are whether partner institutions prioritize graduating students with skills aligned with the future of work. In this post we explore what employers are seeking, and what advice higher ed experts have for those interested in better meeting the needs of working adult students.

What are employers seeking to achieve?

Fostering successful outcomes for working adult students necessitates an understanding of how innovative employers approach the war for talent. Guild Chief Commercial Officer, Natalie McCollough, moderated a conversation with executives from JP Morgan Chase & Co, Rock Central, and Waste Management —three leading companies that have built education benefits into their corporate strategies—about why education and upskilling are top priorities now.

1. Help talent advance their careers. Education benefits are valuable to employers through their capacity to both attract and retain talent.  Kim Gregorie, Head of Talent Development Program Management Office at JPMorgan Chase & Co., highlights the importance of bridging the talent gap by providing learning opportunities that can further employees’ careers and make it easier for them to build skills portfolios conducive to advancement.

2. Stay agile to meet current and future skilling needs. Maintaining a competitive edge can mean making quick adjustments. This also includes scaling efficiently and effectively, according to Tamala Oates-Forney, Senior Vice President and Chief People Officer at Waste Management. “When it comes to learning, we need to be agile.”

3. Be more intentional about fostering alignment between strategy and employees’ values. KimArie Yowell, Chief Learning Officer at Rock Central, points out that strategy is always stronger when employees are valued as stakeholders. “Listen to your employees and what matters to them,” she advises, “and align what matters to them with your strategic initiatives.”

Advice from higher ed innovators

What do higher ed experts recommend? The below insights are taken from two separate panels moderated by Guild. Guild Learning Marketplace Senior Vice President, Geoff Watson, moderated a discussion about the role of higher ed in helping students achieve academic and career success with Oregon State University, University of Pennsylvania, and Southern New Hampshire University. Guild Learning Marketplace President, Paul Freedman, moderated a discussion about innovative partnerships with Paul Quinn College and Minerva Project / Minerva University.  

CULTURE + COLLABORATION: Laying the critical groundwork for serving working adult students and fostering a culture of continuous improvement

1. Don’t rush the important work of fostering institutional buy-in. Though working adult students stand to redefine the new traditional student over the course of the next several years, investing in new programming and delivery requires considerable stakeholder support —a time commitment well worth making, according Nora Lewis, Vice Dean for Professional and Liberal Education at University of Pennsylvania. “Don’t rush this part,” she says, recounting how she spent two years speaking with hundreds of faculty, students, departments, and grad groups to listen and find alignment before Penn LPS launched its Bachelor of Applied Arts & Sciences flexible online degree program. Equally important is market research —understanding an institutional niche, in-demand programs, and where markets are saturated can reveal smart areas of investment. Lewis points out these data points are instrumental in advancing stakeholder conversations. “If you’ve done the market research, you have the data, you can share compelling info with scholars, people who are driven by the research.” 

2. Create an innovation flywheel. Paul Freedman recommends bringing faculty into the innovation conversation early and often. “Incentivize new ideas, new pedagogy, new models.” Doing so can help build a culture of innovation and shared ownership with key stakeholder input baked in.

3. Practice a growth mindset. Ben Nelson, Founder & CEO of the Minerva Project and Chancellor of Minerva University, points out a strange disjuncture higher education innovators sometimes encounter: a fear of walking the talk. “You can’t teach a growth mindset if you’re not interested in growth,” he points out, adding that if students are coming to a program to expand their horizons, institutions must be willing to do the same. 

4. Build collaborative partnerships. The steady trend of higher education institutions becoming less vertically integrated and more open to partnering is essential to meeting student needs. “If someone else is better at it, let’s partner,” Michael Sorrell, President of Paul Quinn College advises, simultaneously warning against the folly of pride, which can result in a substandard student experience. “Let’s borrow someone else’s greatness. We can’t be selfish. Education should always be about expanding the common good.”


STUDENT ACCESS + OUTCOMES: Easing student burdens and improving working adult student-focused offerings

5. Rethink admissions from a working adult student perspective. The traditional admissions process is unnecessarily burdensome for working adults, many of whom face financial and administrative difficulty in retrieving old transcripts which may no longer reflect their fitness for an academic program in the first place. Lewis shares how Penn LPS Online created a gateway admissions route in which students complete four of the required foundation courses with a minimum grade. If they do so successfully,  they can provide the academic record to be evaluated for admission to be a degree candidate, reporting that roughly half of applicants for the Applied Arts & Sciences BA come in via this route, with an 80% success rate for admission. 

6. Make skills due north in short-form learning program strategy. Short-form learning often makes educational attainment more accessible for working adult students, both those who seek specific competencies without a full degree, and those who aspire to earn a degree over time (stackability is therefore essential). Sarah Normand, Executive Director of Workforce Partnerships at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), points to identifying the skills and certificates that can keep students thriving as a top priority for SNHU.  “We try to map back to industry in demand skills at the same time,” she explains, adding that when strategizing around short-form learning, the question to ask is “How do we incorporate skills that are recession-proof?” Looking to the skills in highest demand among employers is a solid starting point. 

7. Invest in robust career support services for students. Lisa Templeton, Associate Provost for Oregon State University’s Ecampus points out that most students are thinking critically about career and professional growth. In response to this need, Ecampus created a Career Hub that provides students with a suite of services, including career advice, job data, postings, networking events, and virtual career fairs, in partnership with OSU’s Career Development Center.

8. Innovate to create affordable degrees. While the growing pathways to help students earn debt-free degrees is through serving working adult learners whose employers offer education benefits, Normand (Penn LPS) also points to Competency-Based Education (CBE) as a way to help students move through a program at their own pace while making space to account for skills they can already demonstrate —and while still fitting within Title IV parameters.

9. Maintain consistency and rigor in online learning. While many working adults already favored online learning pre-pandemic, the last year has caused many to affiliate “online learning” with an emergency transition. Oregon State University (OSU) has been offering online learning for decades, and Templeton attributes the institution’s online learning success to the power of parity: “We partnered every faculty with an instructional designer who understood best practices and started with backwards design,” she says, adding that the instructional designers at Ecampus help professors develop engaging, interactive experiences. “Interaction is threefold. Students will interact with each other, with faculty, and with the content.” By modifying the same  rigor as in-person learning to an online format, Ecampus students can achieve comparable outcomes.

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

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