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Improving the Pipeline to Postsecondary Education for Adult Learners — Q&A with Jade Arn, Council for Adult and Experiential Learning

November 15, 2018

Jade Arn

By Mai P. Tran, ECMC Foundation

In today’s job market, postsecondary credentials are becoming increasingly important. Out of the 11.6 million jobs created in the post-recession economy, 11.5 million went to workers with at least some postsecondary education. Of those, 8.4 million jobs went to individuals with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

With the increasing share of jobs in the labor market requiring at least some postsecondary education, those who have not continued their education past high school face the risk of being left behind. In fact, less than half of the workforce have some postsecondary education.

One solution – prior learning assessments (PLA) – has the potential to help bridge the gap, awarding adult learners the credits they deserve, and helping them reach their career goals in a timely and cost-effective way. PLA is a process that evaluates a number of factors for college credit, including: work and life experience, professional training, military training or open source learning.

With grant funding from ECMC Foundation CAEL embarked on a project over the past two years that worked with four selected sites – Philadelphia, PA; Hampton Roads, VA; Miami, FL; and Seattle, WA – to establish strategies and processes for increasing the adult learner pipeline into postsecondary education. The goal of the project was to generate broader workforce system-wide knowledge of, support for, and policy to promote PLA as a method for increasing postsecondary credential workforce attainment for workforce system participants.

Q&A with Jade Arn, CAEL

We sat down with Jade Arn, CAEL’s Director of Workforce and Economic Development, to ask her about her organization’s progress on the project, their key strategies and lessons learned.

Q: Let’s first talk about the reason for this project. Why does CAEL believe it is critical to improve opportunities in postsecondary education for adult learners?

A: Today’s knowledge-based economy increasingly demands education or training beyond high school—a trend that will continue into the foreseeable future. By 2026 roughly 60 percent of jobs will require a high-quality postsecondary credential. However, less than half of the U.S. population between the ages of 25 and 64 hold a credential beyond a high school degree; closing this gap is critical to sustaining and growing the economy.

Q: A report CAEL published several years ago provided evidence that PLA is a best practice that improves postsecondary attainment among adult learners. Can you please provide a brief overview of the study findings?

A: PLA reduces costs for students, helps with student retention, and increases graduation rates. In 2010 CAEL conducted a study, titled “Fueling the Race to Postsecondary Success” which examined more than 62,000 student records across 48 institutions. Our researchers found that students with PLA credit were more than two times more likely to graduate than students without PLA credit – and that was true regardless of the institution’s size or level and the students’ academic ability or GPA, race/ethnicity, age, financial status, or gender.

Q. Can you briefly describe this PLA-related project funded by ECMC Foundation?

A: PLA has historically been a construct of higher education with little connection to other entities serving adult earners and learners in the community. This project was designed to bring together workforce development boards—who oversee public employment and training resources—and community colleges to develop cross-system PLA strategies. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, also known as WIOA, emphasizes the importance of postsecondary credentials, career pathways, sector partnerships, and systems alignment. We saw the advent of the WIOA as an opportunity for colleges and workforce boards to work together in new and more strategic ways, so we came up with a concept to support them in doing so through PLA strategies. Through this project, we brought together public workforce system and college partners in four communities to: 1) Increase awareness and understanding of PLA, 2) Develop and document referral processes between the public workforce system and higher education, and 3) Map (or “crosswalk”) non-credit training provided through the workforce system to credit-bearing courses and programs at the college. Our goals were to build awareness and knowledge of prior learning assessment in the workforce system, the colleges, and communities, change policies and practices related to PLA, and to help these systems create more efficient pathways toward postsecondary credentials, increasing the skills of the current and prospective workforce.

Q. What lessons have you learned?

A: One of the most important lessons is to give time and attention to the relationship building between organizations, which itself was among the biggest payoffs of this effort. Even in the best circumstances, workforce boards and community colleges are two different organizations with different cultures, structures, hierarchies, missions, priorities and processes. It takes time to learn these differences, figure out how each system operates, and to coordinate efforts.

Buy-in across all levels—from leadership to frontline staff—is critical. This is particularly true if you are asking organizations to make and implement change. One key strategy we found to improve buy-in was to include staff, faculty, and leadership from both partners in shared professional development (PLA awareness and training) and process mapping. This went a long way to create a shared understanding of PLA (what it is, why it’s important, who are good candidates), increased communication, established new relationships across (and sometimes inside) organizations, and provided a much clearer understanding of customer/student flow processes. One key “ah-ha” moment during one such session was when the college partner revealed the array of industry certifications, some of which are provided by the workforce system, they had already equated to college credits—this was a revelation to many in the room!

Lastly, goals for scaling are helpful. All sites had an eye for the future, with plans to scale beyond the scope and/or size of the project. This helped to incentivize the work, while helping all sites keep an important balance between early steps and long-term goals.

Q: What are some things you wish you had known before starting the project?

A: We selected communities through a competitive process that asked them to demonstrate an existing relationship between the college and workforce board partners, and while we knew there would still be some work to be done around partnership, we underestimated the lift. Retrospectively, we would have built in more time for partners to get to know each other and learn more about their processes and requirements.

As I mentioned, in some cases we found that workforce board-supported trainings and/or industry certifications already matched crosswalks developed by the colleges prior to the project. So many viable pathways already existed, but neither the colleges nor the workforce boards knew about or promoted them as such. Just sharing this information across partners or working in tandem to proactively identify crosswalk opportunities aligned with the regional economy could be a game-changer.

Q: Ten years from now, what is the impact you hope CAEL’s work, as it relates to PLA, will have made in postsecondary education?

A: That’s a big question. Ideally PLA—recognizing the learning and skills people bring with them—will have become part of the norm of how we do things not just inside of higher education, but across the entire earning and learning ecosystem.

Jade Arn is the Director of Workforce and Economic Development at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. She works with communities across the country to increase alignment of education and training offerings to local labor markets, enhance coordination of community stakeholders, articulate career pathways, and develop regional workforce and/or economic development strategies.

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