NSF and Stanford kick off a new ‘science of working learners’

The country doesn’t know enough about which nondegree programs pay off for students and which ones don’t.

The pandemic also has muddied that calculus, as lower-income students face more time demands, financial barriers, and uncertainty in the job market. Yet interest in short-term programs is rising, with community college leaders saying that working learners want to move quickly to earn a credential that can help them land a well-paying job. 

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 are worth potentially large new investments.

Looming at the center of all this is a question: What are acceptable results for these programs?

Building a ‘science infrastructure’ for employability

What’s new: 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,” said 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 said 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,” said 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?” said Gallagher.

Retiring ‘old frames’

Framework + data: 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 said 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 said.

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,” said Alston. “We continue to evolve with society.”

What’s next: Work Shift recently talked in-depth with Stanford’s Stevens about the conference and its goals, as well as the broader context for understanding the needs of working learners. The exchange follows.

Q: What’s driving the current focus on connections between postsecondary education and work? How did we get here?

Photo of Mitchell L. Stevens

Mitchell Stevens: A lot of factors got us here, but there are two that aren’t talked about as much as they should be. First, the Presidential election of 2016 startled the national philanthropic community, which had long touted a mantra of “college for all” as the mechanism for social mobility in this country. The Trump campaign very successfully mobilized those left behind by college-for-all: the men and women disenchanted by academically focused formal schooling. College-for-all is a terrible mobility strategy for those who perform poorly on high school academics, or the millions of people who have college debt but no postsecondary degree. For many of these Americans, the whole idea of college as a requirement for economic security is downright infuriating. That was a wake-up call across the civil sector that the nation needs more varied pathways to well-compensated employment. I view this a major shift in public-policy discourse, and one that I enthusiastically endorse.

Second, beginning with the MOOC phenomenon of 2012, Silicon Valley has gradually come to realize that the hegemony of the four-year bachelor’s degree as a prerequisite for decent employment is not absolute. Even a modest diminishment of that cartel creates spectacular opportunities for new providers—I call them “not-schools”—to offer certifications in a wide range of formats at a variety of price points. As I write this I’m flying back from attendance at ASU+GSV, the spectacular education VC summit hosted by Deborah Quazzo and colleagues for the last 12 years. It’s full of people with energy, enthusiasm, and capital—an only-in-America combination of entrepreneurial ambition and civic purpose. As the sector assembled at (and by) ASU+GSV matures, it’s likely to have growing influence on public opinion about what postsecondary education should look like and how it should be paid for. 

Q: How can applied research help inform policy around working learners? What pieces have been missing from these discussions so far?

Stevens: Here’s what’s sobering: for all of the importance of improving opportunities for adult education and lifelong learning, there is shockingly little cumulative science on what kinds of educational programs work well, for which kinds of learners, in which occupational and technical sectors. There’s also shockingly little information on earnings returns for learning credentials that are not college degrees. This means that politicians, philanthropists and businesspeople are basically flying blind on what sorts of programs to fund, build, or close. It also means huge risk for the very people who have been disserved by college-for-all: those without high school diplomas or college degrees who are the ideal targets for predatory providers. So: huge knowledge gaps all around. Figuring out how to fill those gaps was the goal of our convening.

Q: What was the focus of discussions at the July conference? Any surprises in where those conversations went?

Stevens: As the Biden administration and state government officials nationwide strategize to help Americans weather the COVID pandemic and “build back better” on education and workforce training, 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. 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. And if we can convince key decisionmakers and voters to make this investment, what sort of infrastructure should we build? And what kinds of scientists and practitioners should be involved? Answering those questions was the purpose of the conference.

We’re still sorting through all our notes, but here are some big takeaways: (1) The organizations serving working learners these days are spectacularly diverse and distributed across every sector: in colleges and universities, workforce-development agencies, philanthropies, and private firms. This means that the science must bridge multiple sectors. (2) There’s a lot of capacity in the nation already, but it’s not coordinated. Building the science can help achieve this coordination. (3) There’s a lot of goodwill and momentum to serve working learners in new ways.

Q: How did you all settle on the term “working learners”? 

Stevens: Isn’t it great? I heard it first from my colleagues Marie Cini, Hadass Sheffer, and Sean Gallagher, all of whom were on the program organizing committee. Then Holly Zanville sent me this piece, which was the first time I’d seen the phrase in print. I love the term because it gives equal weight to the learning and working aspects of the life course. 

Q: What might come next after the July meeting? Could this be an ongoing conversation?

Stevens: One outcome for certain: a report to our program officers at the National Science Foundation, Pushpa Ramakrishna and Tara Behrend, mapping out the scientific domains where growth could inform public policy and best practices in the private sector. A bunch of participants with expertise in a range of fields have generously agreed to coauthor the report. We’ll make it available to the general public this fall and hope it encourages further conversation and planning to build capacity nationally.

I’m also in active conversation with colleagues in community colleges and workforce-development agencies here in Silicon Valley—specifically San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, both of which border the Stanford campus—on how we might develop a regional, cross-sector observatory that will help all of us understand how best to serve local residents who are seeking to improve their lives through learning. Another clear takeaway from the July discussions is that regional collaborations will be ideal, even essential mechanisms for optimizing the capacity our communities already have to serve the people we know best: our neighbors. We’re also talking about a national network among regional initiatives, perhaps anchored by research universities, to enable the scaling of educational innovations proven effective at the grassroots.

This is a science project, but it is just as much a civic endeavor. We need to devise fresh ways of collaborating across sectors to improve educational opportunities for adults. Live and learn indeed.

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We dive into the latest research on college ROI, including a study released today by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. In short: what students study matters a lot.