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Many working adults have completed college courses, Ebersole explained in an interview, but family and work responsibilities have prevented them from their obtaining a degree. Many adults do not see the benefits of completing their educations after they quit because they feel secure in their employment.
So why go back to school? Because the jobs that feel secure today may disappear in the evolving workforce. Millions of workers faced unemployment during the recession as their positions were eliminated. At the same time, 3 million jobs stood vacant because workers lacked the skills to do them. By 2020, it is anticipated that 55 million jobs will be created. 65% of these jobs will require more than a high school education, reports The Wall Street Journal. The article also points out that college graduates earn 84% more over their lifetimes than high school grads.
Because a college education is costly and stressful for those who struggle to maintain a work-life balance, many adults remain hesitant. Yet degrees are becoming necessary for personal and national economic success.
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In April, the government declared its commitment to adult education and workforce improvement. The U.S. Department of Labor announced the availability of $474.5 million to foster partnerships between businesses and community colleges. The goal is to train students with skills that enable them to fill jobs in high-need fields.
"Building a well-educated workforce is critical to achieve President Obama's mission to grow the economy from the middle class out," said Seth D. Harris, acting secretary of labor, in a statement. The funding will allow schools to use online and technology-based job training tools to best educate students.
While adults can choose to take classes at a local college, many now opt to educate themselves online. Since its beginnings, online learning has struggled to gain acceptance. Skeptics have claimed that a traditional face-to-face college education results in a better experience and a more valuable degree.
But popular opinion has changed. Employers now admit that with the evolution of technology, online programs provide adults with a high-quality education. "I used to believe that some subjects couldn't be taught online. I no longer believe that," Ebersole said about the progress of virtual degree programs. With the invention of online labs, even science courses can be taught on the Internet.
In fact, some studies have shown that online education may actually improve students' experiences. In a meta-analysis by the U.S. Department of Education on the subject, results indicated that technology can play a significant role in education. While the report doesn't suggest that online education is superior to in-person instruction, it provides a strong argument for the benefits of virtual learning.
Adults seeking higher education may select institutions that target adult learners with online programs and simplify the process of earning a degree. At Excelsior, for example, most students are in their mid-30s, married with children, and have taken college courses. "Our typical student brings in about five transcripts," said Ebersole. Excelsior works with each student to determine a path to graduation. The school is also flexible in their acceptance of transfer credits, which helps students save money.
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While online learning has made tremendous progress, there is room for improvement. For example, poor instruction demands attention, according to Ebersole, who recommends that university professors participate in courses to improve their interactions with students.
Adult learning institutions should also make students better aware of their options, he said. Many don't know that they can receive credit for learning that takes place outside the (virtual) classroom. At Excelsior, where many students work full-time, for example, employee training programs can be evaluated for equivalency to academic classes. Evaluations are conducted by the American Council on Education and the National College Credit Recommendation Service of the State of New York. If a program is approved, students receive academic credit for job training.
Through the Council on Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), students can receive credit for outside learning if they can provide sufficient documentation. Students must first complete a course on the learning-validation process, which is popular among artists, musicians, project managers and some tech professionals.
Any discussion of options for adult learners must also address the impact of massive open online courses (MOOCs). Gregor Freund, CEO of Versal, a new MOOC platform that allows users to design their own open courses for free. "We're working on improving education by helping educators build better tools," Freund said in an interview. His goal is to use technology to create an environment in which instructors can build participatory classes for students as opposed to simply recording lectures.
"Adult lifelong learning has to be in an environment that fits into peoples' lives," added Allison Wagda, VP of marketing at Versal. "We're really on the cusp of this new ability for anyone to learn almost anything."