The Valdosta Daily Times
Colleges and universities across the country are focusing on adult education and the social and economic benefits of working towards degree completion.
In September, Gov. Nathan Deal released college completion plans submitted by every institution in the University System of Georgia and the Technical College System of Georgia. This critical step made Georgia the first state in the nation to have a completion plan for every public higher education institution.
By 2020, it is projected that more than 60 percent of jobs in Georgia will require some form of college education, whether a certificate, associate’s degree, or bachelor’s degree, according to Deal’s plan, Complete College Georgia.
Today, only 42 percent of the state’s young adults qualify. Additionally, nearly 1 million working Georgians, 22 percent of those in the workforce, have already earned some college credit but have not completed a degree.
“Usually, it is not academic reasons why they leave us,” said Valdosta State University President Dr. Bill McKinney.
To reverse the current path, Georgia has committed to Complete College America’s goal that, by 2020, 60 percent of young adults will hold a college certificate or degree.
While still dedicated to traditional college students, VSU has honed a focus in un-traditional, adult learners who have spent some time in college, but for one reason or another, never finished.
“More than any time in history, we need to pay attention to this group,” said McKinney. “While we will always be committed ... to the residential, traditional college experience, there are also non-traditional college experiences.”
In 2010, the Department of Adult Degree Completion and Military Programs (AMP) was created.
“It was created partly because we were seeing a lot of adult learners come through,” said Dr. Gerald Merwin, director of VSU’s Adult
Academic Degree Completion and Professional Development Programs.
Since its creation, AMP has enhanced VSU support and services to the non-traditional student.
“We advise them about career plan options, what majors would be best and more,” said Merwin.
While VSU began offering masters programs online in 1999, it didn’t begin offering undergraduate online programs until two years ago. Currently, VSU offers five online undergraduate programs.
While online programs are an added convenience to non-traditional students who typically work full-time and have a family, AMP goes one step farther by accelerating certain degree paths.
“They can earn credit for technical training they earned in the past that we couldn’t otherwise have counted previously,” said Merwin.
VSU also helped pioneer Prior Learning Assessments which began in 2008.
“We were the first system in Georgia doing Prior Learning Assessments,” said Merwin.
PLA is a process through which students identify areas of relevant learning from their past experiences, demonstrate that learning through appropriate documentation, and submit their materials so that they can be assessed and possibly awarded academic credit relative to specific course objectives.
“This is not credit for experience,” said Merwin. “It’s credit for college-level learning.”
Overseen by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, PLA tapped Merwin as an advisor when planning learningcounts.org.
“They wanted to have a national way for students to earn PLA credit,” said Merwin. “There wasn’t a central place in the country that someone could go to for assessments.”
As the lead institution of the Adult Learning Consortium — with 13 participating institutions in Georgia, VSU has helped pioneer and develop policies, practices, models, and programs which target the needs of adult learners.
Having already had a working relationship with CAEL through PLA and the Adult Learning Consortium which it created and piloted, VSU took one step farther this year when McKinney was named one of six new CAEL board of trustees members.
“It’s a real privilege,” said McKinney. “It says a lot about VSU’s work with them.”
CAEL is dedicated to meeting the needs of returning adult learners in higher education by making it easier for them to get the education and training needed to attain meaningful and secure employment.
“They encourage innovation in higher education to help meet the needs of those students,” said McKinney.
For years, VSU has been a leader in the advancement of adult education and because of these efforts, it was announced in July that the university would be the most recent recipient of the 2012 CAEL Institutional Service Award, which is awarded annually at the CAEL International Conference.
“To me, it is a seal of approval of what the university is doing,” said McKinney. “This organization looks at VSU as a leader.”
On Nov. 8, Merwin along with McKinney and many others accepted the award in Washington, D.C.
While awards are just paper and metal, and statistics are just numbers, VSU is diligently working to change the lives of people such as Roger Crews.
Crews graduated from Pierce County High School in 1999.
“Since then, I have almost constantly taken classes on a part-time basis,” said Crews.
In 2008, Crews completed his associate’s degree in general studies from Waycross College. After graduation, he spent a couple of semesters taking online classes through Georgia Southwestern State University.
“Life circumstances halted that in early 2010,” said Crews.
In combination with various life variables such as being a husband to his wife Mandy and his four children, Ella Kate, Benjamin, Carrie and Jesse, Crews also works long hours as a retail manager.
In 2011, he began looking for a way to continue his education.
“I did not want to let my AA degree go unused and I have always wanted a life outside of retail and the long hours and stress that it accompanies,” said Crews.
Unfortunately, Crews had no skills or experience outside of retail management and needed a way to build upon himself and his resume.
Living in Blackshear, Waycross College was the only college in the area and it was only a two-year institution.
“I began my search by going to the websites for every university in the state of Georgia in pursuit of an online program that might meet my needs,” said Crews.
This is how Crews found the Organizational Leadership Program at VSU.
Crews found interest in the programs several different concentrations in areas such as public-service administration, which he chose.
“However, I must tell you that the one thing that sealed the deal was my initial phone conversation with Dr. Jerry Merwin,” said Crews. “I was so astonished at the genuine concern that Dr. Merwin has for adult learners and the passion that he has for seeing them succeed.”
Crews began taking courses full-time in August 2011. He officially graduated with his bachelor’s on Dec. 8, 2012.
Between work, life circumstances and his family, Crews said it would have been impossible for him to complete his degree in a traditional classroom.
“Despite the hardships of juggling so much, I know that it would have been impossible to have completed my degree any other way,” said Crews.
Now days, students such as Crews have many options for online degree completion and VSU is blazing the way for these opportunities to grow.
“You will not find a better program anywhere else,” said Crews. “VSU offers the real deal.”
VSU has had a tremendous effect on adult learners such as Crews and isn’t just trying to turn these credit earners into graduates. The university is leading the way.
“We will become not just a statewide leader, we’re already a statewide leader. ... My goal is for VSU to become a national leader,” said McKinney.