As the number of "nontraditional" students, especially working learners, rises, the traditional secondary education format, i.e. a recent high school graduate going to a brick-and-mortar college fulltime, is becoming less of a reality. Many learners are struggling to access the brick-and-mortar college because of finances or actual distance " nearly 11.2 million adults live in an education desert, or more than sixty minutes from a public college.1

Living in an education desert also increases the chance a person is impoverished, if a person lives an hour or more from a public college, there is a 12.8% chance they live in poverty.1  Making the idea of going back to school even more daunting, the cost of a college degree is a major setback for people across the socio-economic spectrum, as student loan debt has skyrocketed to $1.4 trillion

Of the learners who do decide to enroll in a four year degree program, 1/5 will drop out before their second year, even those without several competing priorities.This phenomenon often occurs due to personal finances, however, other factors like competing work or childcare schedules can inhibit even the most dedicated student from completing their degree. For working learners in particular, finding the right program means finding support that is different from the 18 or 19 year old cohort studying fulltime. 

Enrolling in an online program is growing in popularity for working learners, so much so that 54% of online students work fulltime.3 Given the flexibility of online, self-paced programs, working and learning in tandem is even more accessible. When learners can work at their own pace, on their own time, education fits into their schedule, as opposed to making their busy schedule fit with their education. And these online programs are not limited to lengthy Bachelor or Associate degree programs.

Adjusting the mindset from needing an expensive and time consuming four year degree to a more manageable, stackable skills credential, will be imperative for both working learners and employers. One effective education model includes credit for prior learning which acknowledges the skills formed through on-the-job experiences.4 Awarding this credit for years of work experience will be important for adults who return to pursue further education " whether it's online or in-person. 

Another trend in secondary education, also crucial for the working learner's success, is the competency-based model which allows students to gain their skills as they work, putting an emphasis on the skills they've mastered. 5 This model is key for today's labor market where programs teaching tangible, career-readiness skills are the most valuable. And as more working learners are looking for educational opportunities while employed, flexible programs allow them to use their skills in the workforce right away, eliminating the need to wait to complete a program to showcase their talent.

Ultimately, the new traditional student is the working learner. Certain support features, such as one on one coaching for motivational support and proactive outreach efforts, have been shown to help the working learning stay on track with their education endeavors. Developing programs that provide this working learner with this kind of comprehensive support and flexibility will open career pathways and help employers fill an increasing number of open jobs.

At Penn Foster, our breadth of online, self-paced programs for today's top jobs are designed with wrap-around support to ensure all working learners can succeed.

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Sources: (1) Higher Ed Chronicle (2) Education Dive (3) Forbes (4) Higher Ed Chronicle (5) Education Dive 

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