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Listen | Mike Krause, former executive director of Tennessee Higher Education Commission, on what it takes to better serve adult learners

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This is the fourth in a five-part series on adult learners at North Carolina’s community colleges. Click here to read the rest of the series.

Our latest Awake58 podcast is with Mike Krause. Krause is presently a consultant in higher education working across the country — including consulting with the John M Belk Endowment and several North Carolina communities on the adult learner work that is featured in this series. Krause previously served as the head of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, as well a variety of other roles in Tennessee state government.

Krause also served in the military — and he was also an adult student himself as he shares in the podcast. Krause shared many lessons with us from his work, as well as insights for higher education leaders from across the country.

One portion of our conversation that stood out was when Krause told me, “What I try to bring to my own thoughts about adult learners, is an understanding that when an adult has made the decision to crossover and go to college, if we can just get them through the first week, their retention rates are through the roof. Adult learners succeed, once they’ve made the decision to cross the Rubicon, at much higher rates than traditional students, in my experience, but there’s a really risky week to month to first semester in there that we’ve got to be sensitive to.”

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Nation Hahn: For those who don’t know you, would you mind sharing a little bit of your backstory and a little bit of your career arc?

Mike Krause: So I currently am in private practice working in higher education consulting, but prior to that served in a variety of roles, kind of did the journeyman path through state government that culminated in serving for four and a half years as the state higher education chief in Tennessee. 

Before that role, though, I held what, for me, was probably the pinnacle and the highest honor, which was being able to work with Governor Bill Haslam, on establishing the nation’s first free community college program, which was Tennessee Promise. I know that everyone in North Carolina can relate — we’re not always used to leading in the good things in the South, and establishing the Tennessee Promise was a great opportunity to lead with one of the good things nationally. 

Prior to that I held a variety of roles within state government in the higher ed space. But foundationally served in the U.S. Army for six years. I actually entered the army after high school. I did not go after college as an officer, I enlisted. So when I did go to college, after my time in the army, I was an adult learner myself, and there’s no doubt that informs some of the perspective I try to bring to higher education.

NH: What are some of your key takeaways from Tennessee’s work? And I guess more specifically, given our emphasis around adult learners, what did your state learn as you aimed to reconnect with them?

MK: First, we learned the importance of having a statewide agenda. Every college is different. Every college campus’s local surroundings are different. At the same time, it really mattered that our governor stood up and said this is what we’re about. We’re about increasing attainment. I think it really mattered that our state stood up with Tennessee Reconnect and said adult learners are important to us. I think in the absence of that, some college campuses will pursue it, because it makes sense to their region, other college campuses probably won’t pursue it. So I look back on that statewide agenda as being really important. 

The second thing that was pivotal was the fact we were willing to make the statement that any adult could go to college tuition free. That’s probably the single most important thing. The message itself of “you need to go back to college” will always resonate with adult learners. But it’s a lot different if the message is you need to go back to college, and it’s free.

We were able to do that in Tennessee, I would argue, for a pretty modest amount of money — probably in the mid-$20 million range, $25 to $28 million. The smallest state budget in America is Delaware, I think, at around $3.5 billion. When you look at that scope and scale for a state like Tennessee, or North Carolina, whose budgets are above $40 billion, $25 million felt like a pretty solid investment for the return on investment you’re going to get — in our case, tens of thousands of adults going back to college tuition free and then being able to go into the workforce with a fundamentally different earning capacity. 

So I think we just had the right overall message, which in and of itself does matter. But then the second thing was more tactical, which was we’re going to make this tuition free. 

And then the final piece, which we’ll probably talk about in a moment, but the final piece was really important, which was making sure that when adults got to campus, they were given appropriate support.

NH: You talked about your experience as an adult learner. Tell us a little bit about how that has impacted your thought process, and then dive deeper into some of your takeaways and recommendations.

MK: The hardest thing I ever did in the army was get out. You know, the military does a really incredible job of kind of becoming a snow globe that you live within, and so it was really scary to get out. It was really jarring to go from, in my case, a 23-year-old Sergeant to a college student. 

One, I was surrounded by students who were five years younger than me, who did not have the life experience I had. That in and of itself is jarring. I was fortunate to go to a university that was right beside the place I was stationed — Fort Campbell, Kentucky. I went to Austin Peay State University, which has a very similar dynamic in place with many of the colleges around Fort Bragg. This college I went to was leaning ahead on how to help adult learners, and it was still much more challenging to pursue the logistics of college in the end than it was academics. 

The structures that were built were built for 18-year-olds, and that didn’t work. The advising services closed at 4:30. The core structures are built for somebody that is always going to take four to five courses, and that’s just not realistic for some adults. So I found myself, even at an adult learner friendly institution, consistently sparring with structures as much as I did academics. 

What I took away from that is, first off, you ask why. Well, the reason is, higher education administrators typically weren’t adult learners, and that’s just the truth. Higher Education administrators typically followed a very staid path, a good path, but a very defined path from college to graduate school, in which they got a doctorate. They then were a professor, they were then a dean, or department head then a dean then a provost and then a president. And the provosts, deans, and department heads you encounter in between presidents are on the same path. 

So you really can’t fault higher education because it has been an industrial complex, where most people have similar experiences. There are exceptions — should always note that. But generally, the system is run by leaders who did not have a non-traditional approach. And so in their defense, it’s really hard to see it any differently. 

What I try to bring to my own thoughts about adult learners, is an understanding that when an adult has made the decision to crossover and go to college, if we can just get them through the first week, their retention rates are through the roof. Adult learners succeed, once they’ve made the decision to cross the Rubicon, at much higher rates than traditional students, in my experience, but there’s a really risky week to month to first semester in there that we’ve got to be sensitive to. 

That sensitivity does have to do with academics — I don’t want to minimize that at all — but you won’t even get the adult learner to the academic place, in my opinion, unless we make sure that the onboarding end of the college is built for a working parent, is built for someone who didn’t succeed in college the first time, so they’re already having to overcome some inner resistance. 

We’ve just got to build an on-ramp that is fundamentally different than most of what public and traditional private higher education has been. And that’s where I think we could learn from the Southern New Hampshires of the world, the Western Governors of the world.

NH: All the projections show these [declining] enrollment trends aren’t turning around. So we know that’s one of the fundamental reasons why adult learners are going to matter just from a pure business case for college. But what are some of the other fundamental principles for why adult learners matter to community colleges and other postsecondary institutions as we move forward?

MK: One because I think that all of higher education and our community college and technical College partners are already there, but even in the university space, we’re going to face continuing requests from the workforce sector, that hey, we need these specifically trained people to do these specific things. The reality is, a lot of that is going to come from adult learners that need to retrain. That’s the imperative that I’m probably most concerned about. 

I think that during the last year of COVID, year and a half now, we’ve had a lot of adults who they’ve had the worst year of their lives. Maybe they found out the job that they thought would get them through retirement is one, maybe they lost the job during the pandemic. Now, maybe they’re finding that job has fundamentally changed and their skills haven’t kept pace. But I think colleges have to be mindful of the fact that the employer workforce business community is going to be a more central voice. 

In academia, I think, so much of the view has been on generating research and being the academic voice in society, which it should still do, and I hope no one hears me saying otherwise. But we do need to adapt to being a workforce engine. Otherwise, the workforce will just create their own colleges. And then we have an existential threat to a lot of institutions’ business and their ability to remain open. So adapting to adult learners, in my mind, really, the imperative becomes ensuring we have the right workforce, which zoom out, and that’s always about prosperity. 

We can zoom out really far. We can say that a state’s ability to recruit a strong workforce leads to their ability to have a revenue base that funds public higher education, and those things are all intertwined. But at the core of it, I would tell a college president if maybe they were skeptical, I doubt there are a few any more that are, but if they were, I would say, “There’s no way you’re going to be able to build the workforce pipeline that’s being asked of you with just traditional students. It’s not mathematically possible.” Let’s pivot to adult learners. Let’s build a pipeline that gets them through, trained, and in a good job that pays a living wage. And let’s also be okay if that pathway doesn’t include a degree. What if it includes a micro credential end route?

NH: What are those questions that you think are fundamental for colleges as they begin to consider adult learners?

MK: First and foremost, are my support services available after hours and on weekends? That, to me, is the single biggest indicator to an adult that this institution is built for them. 

Second, are we able to import prior learning? And this is one I’m passionate about. The only place where learning takes place is not just in a campus or in a classroom. We have great employer experiences. We have very high-quality military training with high-quality industry training. So I ask those presidents, are you configured to import prior learning assessment? Because if you are, that student then shows up, and it’s like, “Hey, here’s your 15 credit hours for your work you’ve done as a police officer,” and that’s a big deal. That’s a big accelerant. It’s a tangible accelerant that will help the student graduate more quickly. But really, what it is is a psychological accelerant. Like, “Oh, okay, I’ve got advanced standing.”

I also ask this question, which I think is really important. Do your faculty have professional development around how to teach adults? There are different learning styles here. There are different approaches that need to be taken with adults. 

I always try to remind myself what I don’t know, because I’m not a faculty member. What I do know, though, is it’s not fair to ask our faculty to teach an ever-changing group of students and not equip them. And so I continue to pose the question, have we trained our faculty on how to teach these adult learners? Have we equipped them with when an adult learner comes in the classroom, there may be a set of experiences that actually aren’t academic that need to be addressed? Do our faculty all know how to refer somebody who may be food insecure? I hope they do. I hope they know that for our traditional students as well who are undergoing those kinds of challenges. But I think faculty professional development is a missed piece of this that is very important. 

Let’s say you have somebody on your campus in charge of adult learners, which I highly recommend, because if nobody’s in charge, it generally doesn’t get done. But that adult learner czar may face 10 adult learners a day, and maybe they’re very fluent on how to serve adult learners, but if that person on the front line, the faculty member, isn’t equipped to serve adult learners, then we’ve got a real issue. You can have the best adult learner subject matter expert working for the provost, but at the end of the day, our faculty are the frontlines. So I think we’ve got to equip them to succeed.

NH: What would, in your mind, an adult learner czar look like?

MK: I think if we look at the lifecycle of a student as the model, so first, there’s recruitment of students and enrollment management. An adult learner czar would be deeply involved in that, and they would start with the adult learners the institution has already served who haven’t graduated. That’s the first thing I would put an adult learner coordinator on. How many students are within X amount of credit hours and have dropped out? Who are they? Well, we know who they are. Let’s contact them. Let’s hold some adult learner friendly events. 

Moving out of that lifecycle, then you have the advising and registration phase. I think what an adult learner point of contact at a campus does is make sure one very important thing: Have we minimized the choices? Because higher education, in our pursuit to try to serve broadly, which I love, but we often present students with 1000 choices rather than five really good choices. 

There’s no doubt, I believe, choice and time are the enemy of graduation in higher education. And I think an adult learner czar in that space helps ensure, okay so, we know for a fact that Mike is coming with 30 credit hours in x field. Great, how do we go to them proactively and say, “Hey, you have two or three different options to complete in the next 18 months. Here’s what they look like.” 

Instead, what we do now is we present a Tetris game of registration schedule, and we say, “Put this together and assemble your courses, maybe meet with an advisor to try to follow your course map.” I think an adult learner coordinator at the campus level can serve as a powerful conduit to say, “Yes, we have relied on adults to come to us once they’ve applied. What if we went to them? And what if we went to them and said, “Hey, here’s your path to a degree.’” 

And then the final thing I think they do. This is an equity problem in my mind. It’s an equity problem across income. It’s an equity problem across demographics that we need to help a lot of adults enhance their skills and be able to earn a higher wage to support their family. I think having that adult learner voice at the table of leadership at colleges matters just to provide that perspective. 

Not to get too Pollyanna about it, but most people who get into higher education are altruists, and they believe, I believe, that higher education as a societal good is here to help people have a better life, raise their family with more financial security. I think that that adult learner voice being at the table to just constantly remind us that not everybody we serve is 18.

We can always refine some system at a college to better serve adults, to better serve low-income students, to better serve students of color. All of the populations that historically haven’t been well served by higher education benefit from somebody that’s viewing everything on that college campus through that prism of closing that gap. And I hope more campuses will consider doing this in the adult learner space.

NH: What would your takeaways be from Tennessee around messaging and what is effective or ineffective?

MK: Simple is effective. The current structure is ineffective. The current structure relies on students completing a FAFSA, which is much simplified, but we’re still at a place where our offer to students is if you fill out this form, we’ll see what happens. That’s not an effective message for someone that already maybe has doubts about coming in the first place. 

What we did in Tennessee is we made a bet that enough students would come back who were fully Pell eligible that it would be free. Their tuition would be free. And the simplicity of that message would also draw in the student who maybe had a little bit of the doughnut hole. They weren’t going to get full Pell, but they were going to get, say $3,000. So they need to figure out a way to find $1,000. In my experience, telling an adult learner they need to find $1,000, we might as well tell them they need to find a million dollars. That is not a winning message.  

The beauty and simplicity of Tennessee Reconnect is that it’s a last dollar approach that says, “If you need aid, we will close the gap.” In doing so, what you really are able to do then is just have a clean message. It’s free. Every asterik you put behind it’s free, I think you lose students. We were comfortable with not putting many asteriks behind it. We were comfortable with saying you can go tuition free. 

A lot of adults took us up on that offer. 17,000 adults took us up on that offer, and we had this massive spike in adult enrollment. It was really because that financial aid message had been boiled down to the lowest common denominator. 

Do you have to go to that full degree we went to? You know, maybe not. But I think that in all the data I’ve seen, cost remains the largest hurdle in most adults’ minds, followed closely by time, family, commitments, and work, which are harder to address.

The average adult that’s going to come to one of our colleges looking to upskill is going to be full Pell. We’ve got to find a better way to message that if we want to address the first thing in their mind, which is how am I going to pay for this, when the reality is paying for the tuition won’t be the problem. 

A lot of times people will become uncomfortable and end up talking themselves out of a clear message. My advice is take the clear message. 

The students who this won’t directly be the one-to-one help for, that’s why we have advisors to help them work through that situation. But we won’t get the chance to advise those students, if our front-end message is so complex that they say, “I’m never going to be able to make that work.” 

I know it’s a different way to approach financial aid, because our financial aid programs for 50 years were really based around two metrics: need and merit. And what we’re talking about is less about the structure of financial aid and more about how we tell people what’s already out there. Our situation proved it’s pretty powerful, and there’s situations like that underway in North Carolina right now.

NH: All financial aid support in the world doesn’t matter without other supports and other efforts. What community-based support should colleges be considering at this point in time?

MK: This is where the free college discussion gets it wrong often. As Dr. Kenyatta Lovett has said, tuition isn’t the only thing. There are a lot of existing programs we just haven’t leveraged well. 

I think of the Workforce Investment Opportunity Act, WIOA, which is administered through most states’ Department of Labor or Employment Security. WIOA provides an array of what we call supportive costs, gas cards, bus passes, things like that, that help a student progress through certain training programs.

If I had a student that came to me it was food insecure, wouldn’t it be really great if in addition to the food pantry at the college, I also was linking them up with the State Department of Human Services, so that they were able to seek whatever benefits might be available under TANF or SNAP. 

I don’t know right now that the problem is absence of benefits. I just don’t think the benefits are aligned and presented to students holistically. My pie in the sky idea is that, especially at community and technical colleges, and honestly at any college serving over 40% Pell eligible students, why wouldn’t you have the State Department of Employment Security and Social Services there? Why wouldn’t they be located the same place the college is? I think that has a really powerful opportunity to leverage what’s already out there. 

What isn’t out there we need to think about is books and tools. So these technical programs have high costs due to the tools often. Nursing students show up on day one with a whole lot of costs that aren’t tuition around equipment and other associated training fees. That one we got to figure out for the programs that just have a particularly high cost, whether it’s a welding student with tools, or an LPN student with their front end costs.

I don’t have a good answer because I don’t think anybody does right now. We’re pretty blessed in North Carolina with an incredible philanthropic community, but I think oftentimes, and this is true in Tennessee, presidents haven’t been able to be in the room with the philanthropies to say, “This is what we need this year,” and then be able to adapt moving forward in a given year based on student enrollment numbers, based on particular program costs. 

I think that that’s the opportunity for us to really get past a place where someone says, “Well, I got enough Pell grant for tuition, but I couldn’t do the program because I couldn’t afford the books.”

NH: What are some of the things that you’re seeing in North Carolina as these colleges and as philanthropies begin to focus on adult learners?

MK: First and foremost, I believe wholeheartedly North Carolina is poised to do something no other state is doing. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. You’ve got to have a lot of things aligned, and we did in Tennessee, at one time. 

In North Carolina, right now, there are a lot of things aligned. There is state leadership. There is nonprofit leadership through myFutureNC. There is advocacy through myFutureNC. There’s the research and encouragement arm that is the Belk Center at NC State that Dr. Jaeger leads. And there is the John M Belk Endowment, which has positioned itself to be a voice around adult learners that I don’t see anywhere else in the nation, and I’m working nationwide right now. 

The thing I’ve seen that’s been the most encouraging has been –leadership matters — and the presidents we’ve worked with in this group, and vice presidents and directors all the way throughout the hierarchy of each institution, at every level, you’ve just got really passionate, good people. 

It really matters because higher education is a human affair. And I’ve been blown away by it. We have all the very different, diverse areas of the Old North State included, and these colleges are just absolutely sprinting in a way that I don’t think anyone in America is right now on adult learners. 

The leadership piece is the thing that has just blown me away: A bunch of passionate leaders at every level within the college who don’t let the conversation ever lose sight of this is about the adult learner that will show up here.

NH: If I’m sitting there as a provost or vice president or community college president today, what are the three to five things I need to get started on right now from an adult learner standpoint? What would that list look like from your perspective?

MK: I’d walk into the institutional research office and say, “I need a report of everybody that’s over the age of 24 right now enrolled at the college.” I would need it sorted by program. I would need it sorted by Pell. I would need it sorted by the courses they’re taking. 

Then my second step, once we’ve had an appropriate data overview, is sitting down and looking at each of the student’s current propensity to succeed, which is not hard to do. Every institutional research office at every campus should know how to do that. 

I would then, once I’ve established the risk factors, triage those students into risk categories. For the most high risk, we would deploy the interventions, which could be academic or could be logistical. That’s the stop-the-bleeding approach in the current semester. 

What I hope that informs, then, is the next step, which is to get strategic about next semester. It is the exact same data pool, the exact same stratification, but then meeting with the deans and department heads, with a particular focus on my student affairs department, to say what we should do.

Faculty are so important here, because faculty are the ones facing the students. Faculty are the ones that normally are the front end of the heartbreaking stories. I would bring them in, and most importantly, bring in some actual adult students to serve in an advisory capacity. Before you know it, you get that group around a table, and you’ve got an advisory council on adult learners that then serves as a litmus test on other policy measures that can be taken. That’s what I would do if I were a vice president today.

NH: Are there any things that you might recommend that some creative policymakers begin to think about or consider?

MK: I would start with financial aid. I’d start by assessing my current state financial aid resources — are they all merit based? Merit has a role in financial aid, and there are financial aid scholars much more learned than me. But I do think that merit took on, at some point, a disproportionate role within financial aid policy, and that’s an equity issue. It’s an issue that we need to look hard at. How do we help students find a way through state means to get through college other than what they did on the ACT or their high school GPA? 

Second, I’ll go back to where we started, which is having some state goal, which thank goodness in North Carolina, there is a state attainment goal. And that matters. 

The final thing I think I’d do, and this is a tall order, but it’s important. Right now, and this is true for all states, not just North Carolina, if I show up to a college in western North Carolina with a certain degree of credit from the military, there’s no guarantee that college is going to respond the same way they would if I showed up to a college in eastern North Carolina. That’s not just about the military, that ultimately becomes about prior learning assessment generally.

At the state level, I would convene a group to look at the top employed fields we have for adults and to come up with some uniform response at campuses. Now, that should be faculty driven and faculty led, but it should happen, because I don’t have a good explanation to a student as to why they go to X college and they had been in the military police and they’re going to get 15 credit hours, but they go to another college and they’re only going to get nine. I think that  that statewide systematic approach is a very appropriate approach in the prior learning assessment space. 

May we never bring in somebody that has had a career in retail or managing restaurants again, and not give them zero credit hours. Because that’s not true. If you’ve been the manager of a restaurant, you are experienced in business practices, you’re experienced in some degree of accounting, you’re experienced in human resources management, and we have to find a way to assess that appropriately, no doubt about it within the bounds of accreditation, but people have. It’s out there. 

I think the state has a very appropriate role to set that table and say, “It’s our expectation that within the bounds of accreditation, there will be a uniform response to prior learning assessment within the state.”

Editor’s note: The John M Belk Endowment supports the work of EducationNC

Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the chief of growth for EducationNC.