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Making a Difference for Adult Learners

In mid-October, USU hosted the Partnerships for Adult Learner Success (PALS) convening in Chicago, Illinois. The eight universities participating in the PALS grant were invited to the two-day meeting to share insights, network, and learn more about the current landscape for urban adult learners of color around the country. While many topics were covered, there are a few high-impact practices that can be taken away; some of which you might be able to start or implement right away!


  1. Bring in Adult Learner Voices Early and Often. Obvious and yet often forgotten. As we begin to think about making systemic and programmatic changes at your universities and within your locus of control, we must keep the student voice at the forefront of our decision-making processes. While research and literature can be helpful, it should not be the only resource guiding practice. Invite adult learners to speak with you and meet them when they are available (because it will likely be outside of the 9-5 workday). Allow them to be a part of the process as a co-creator. Ask adult learners to give feedback on your ideas. Their voices are not a “one and done” ... keep their voices present throughout your process.

  2. Remember Your Why (and Learn about Others’). After working day in and day out on programs for adult learners, we can become so consumed with charging ahead to making our campuses more inclusive that we get stuck when roadblocks happen (funding issues, interim leadership who may not want to sign off on new ventures, etc.). However, we must continue to have the conversations that will bring about change. When you encounter a “no,” consider how you can get to “yes” by framing your why in a different way. If your “why” is a social justice issue (i.e., adult learners are a group typically excluded from the university, etc.) consider framing your why in terms of economics (i.e., adult learners provide an important enrollment source in time of low enrollment nationally, etc.). All our “whys” are important, but we need to know about each other's to find common ground. One resource we practiced at the PALS convening was the “Nine Whys” liberating structure; try it out and see if it can help you discover the many “whys” of your work with adult learners!

  3. Mental Models. If we are going to make big policy changes, we need to raise awareness of the challenges adult learners currently face first. As Blumenstyk (2022) from the Chronicle of Higher Education put it, we must make sure there are more ladders than chutes for adults enrolling in college. Talk about adult learners to your colleagues. Host a luncheon on the topic. Repost articles with your thoughts on LinkedIn. Advocate for the adult learner experience and question how they will be affected by existing programs and policies. If we start small now, we can make big change later.

We’re thoroughly impressed with the work the PALS grantees have done so far to create more accessible and equitable. We cannot wait to see how this will positively affect adult learners at all our USU member institutions in the future.

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