We don’t know enough about which nondegree programs pay off for students and which ones don’t.
At the same time, the consensus among experts is that the data and research are lagging developments in the market. As a result, sources say policy makers are desperate to figure out which postsecondary education and job-training programs might be worth large new investments.
Looming at the center of all this is a question: What are acceptable results for these programs?
To help fill in these knowledge gaps, a group of 180 academics, researchers, and other experts gathered virtually
in July to discuss an applied science
to support working learners. The conference site
features presentations and background material on a wide range of topics.
Organizers of the conference, which was sponsored by the National Science Foundation and hosted by Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, hope it morphs into an ongoing conversation on shared scientific and policy goals.
“My co-organizers and I believe it’s important to call for public investment in building observational capacity to understand what kinds of programs work, for whom, and why,” says Mitchell L. Stevens
, an organizational sociologist and a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education.
“Another way of saying this is that we need infrastructure for doing science—not nearly as expensive as building roads and bridges, but perhaps even more important for informing public and private investment in the lifelong employability of Americans.”
The players: Geleana Drew Alston
helped organize and contributed to the event. Alston is an associate professor in the department of leadership studies and adult education at North Carolina A&T State University, which is the nation’s only adult education–focused graduate program at an HBCU.
She said the gathering brought together researchers from disciplines that often don’t interact. For example, Alston says it was a welcome change to have special education experts and community college representatives at the virtual table.
“I’ve developed new relationships when it comes to my own research,” says Alston. “My tribe has expanded.”
The project allows an appropriately broad group of experts to put a stake in the ground to frame discussions about how to best serve working learners, said Sean Gallagher
, founder and executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy.
“What are the problems and issues that are out there? And how can the researchers make a difference?” says Gallagher.
The phrase “working learners” itself may get a boost from the gathering. While a few experts and college leaders have begun using the term, it’s hardly the default way to refer to this population. That could change soon.
Likewise, Gallagher says erroneous notions abound about adult students. “It’s not a magic growth market” for higher education, as Gallagher recently wrote in EdSurge. “Some of our old frames are just tired.”
Few academics focus on working adults. And Alston and Gallagher say it can be difficult to apply for research grants in this space. “It’s a niche that sits at the intersection of so many academic areas,” Gallagher says.
Likewise, most gatherings on adult students feature a single funder and a relatively narrow topic of discussion, which limits the sort of organic and open-ended scope that is needed at this crucial moment for students, the economy, and policy.
“You really need to understand the science of the working learner,” says Alston. “We continue to evolve with society.”
I recently interviewed Stanford’s Stevens about the conference and its goals, as well as the broader context for understanding the needs of working learners. To read our exchange, click over to Work Shift