ACCN 2.0: Reflections from the ACCN Annual Workshop

Over 80 members of the Adult College Completion Network (ACCN) gathered in Denver on November 10 and 11, braving snow and sleet to come together and share their challenges and successes in serving adult learners. Attendees spent a packed day and a half swapping strategies, learning from subject matter experts, and discussing everything from digital badges to rehabilitating federal student loans.  

This year’s event marked a shift from past convenings, moving from invitation-only to an open attendance format as the ACCN seeks to welcome new initiatives from around the country into the network. Participants from 22 states and the District of Columbia representing two- and four-year institutions, state systems, state policy organizations, philanthropy, national groups, and others provided a diverse array of perspectives on the topic of adult college completion.

While many themes were similar to those in past years—significant attention focused on issues such as partnerships, data, funding and financial aid, and marketing—a new direction seemed to guide this year’s conversations. At the ACCN’s inaugural meetings, projects and programs explored what might work for adult learners and how to build it. With consensus emerging as to what works, the dialogue has begun to move towards more second-generation questions: How do we leverage technology to enhance and scale programs? How do we ensure consistency? How do we track and identify outcomes?

Below are some of the answers—or at least beginnings of answers—that arose to these questions at the workshop.

  • How do we leverage technology to enhance and scale programs?
    Institutions such as Western Governors University (WGU) and the University of Memphis are partnering with alternative credit providers—StraighterLine and Saylor Academy respectively—to offer their students and prospective students a low-cost avenue to enter or complete their programs. The early results of both initiatives are promising and may be of particular interest given the Department of Education’s recent announcement of the EQUIP experimental site initiative.

    Other examples ranged from the development of hybrid competency-based programs at Salt Lake Community College’s School of Applied Technology to the University of Phoenix’s Career Guidance System developed to boost retention by helping their students identify and navigate career paths. Other projects, such as Connecticut’s Go Back to Get Ahead campaign and The Graduate! Network’s locally focused employer engagement work, noted the critical role customer relationship management (CRM) tools can play in effectively managing large-scale outreach efforts. Meanwhile, a number of ACCN attendees are working hard to ensure adults seeking to return to postsecondary education have accurate, easy to use information on the programs and institutions available to them. These efforts include: TheAdultLearner.org and early stage startup New Ed Inc. at the national level, and Next Step Maine and College In Colorado at the state level.
  • How do we ensure consistency?
    Developing and growing consistently high quality programming for adult learners was a key topic throughout the workshop, spanning all types of initiatives. Faculty development came up repeatedly, with representatives from SUNY Empire State and Charter Oak State College sharing how their institutions work with faculty to build an understanding of adult-friendly practices from prior learning assessment (PLA) to engaging online course design. University of Colorado Colorado Springs’ Program Director for Veteran and Military Student Affairs offered examples of how the school has worked over time to create a consistent, effective approach to serving a large military-connected student population, integrating program elements from a tailored orientation to a Veterans Advisory Board for faculty and staff.

    Other consistency-focused initiatives included the Ohio Department of Higher Education’s Credentials Count work—which is aiming to standardize the state’s reporting requirements for institutional certificates, state occupational licenses, and industry-recognized certifications—and Kentucky’s Project Graduate, which developed a standardized approach for returning students with 80+ credits to complete degrees at Kentucky’s universities.

    In addition, consistency in PLA use and application was—as ever—a hot topic, and participants learned about efforts at the system (University of Wisconsin), state (Colorado), and national level (CAEL and their LearningCounts program) to do this. Finally, the workshop’s closing plenary on the Connecting Credential’s initiative sparked a lively debate about what a nationwide credentialing system built upon a consistent framework might look like, and the challenges we might face in arriving at one.
  • How do we track and identify outcomes?
    Seemingly the eternal question of education policy, how projects are tracking their data and evaluating their outcomes arose in nearly every session. Plenary panelists discussed Tennessee’s implementation of a co-requisite remediation model and how it is building an evidence base for a scalable, state-wide strategy. Other programs like University of Maryland University College’s four-week online "Jumpstart" course, which takes new adult students through the process of designing an individualized learning plan, demonstrated results on consecutive term enrollment and one-year retention using comparisons with a matched control group.

    Additional examples of the critical role outcomes can play in fully understanding the impact of programs for adult learners came from new research by WICHE’s Patrick Lane on the wage gains for near-completers who finish four-year degrees and the University of Utah’s Jason Taylor on evidence of the impact of reverse transfer on state and student outcomes from the Credit When It’s Due project.

Overall it was exciting to see how far the field—and the ACCN—has come in the last five years, transitioning from often isolated local efforts to a growing national community eager to collaboratively address the big questions around scale and impact that lie ahead.


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