A Different Approach to Adult Education


Trenton, New Jersey. -- A fundamental shift has occurred in the way our society develops and maintains an educated populace. Today, colleges represent a minority sector in providing post-secondary education. There are more students, faculty, dollars and facilities engaged in post-secondary education within corporations, unions and the military than in all of this country's colleges and universities put together.

Twenty 20 years ago, I attended an American Association for Higher Education conference on "The New Learning Society." It projected a society where learning, training and education would be a process without end, with diverse providers. To paraphrase a now-retired football coach, "That future is now."

In 1987, $80 billion was spent on traditional post-secondary education. But $210 billion -- $30 billion in direct, formal training and $180 billion for on-the-job training -- went for post-secondary education in the corporate sector. While traditional higher education is seeing declines in student enrollment, employer-based training and education is growing at 10 percent to 20 percent a year. The new business of business is indeed education.

Through a recent series of national reports and books, various providers of post-secondary education have discovered one another. Candidly, the revelation has occasioned some discomfort among these new business-collegiate partners. College constituencies feel threatened by the recognition that some of the most effective teaching and research in actuarial science, banking, economics and taxation, to name a few, is occurring within the insurance and banking industries and not exclusively within our graduate business schools. Business people have been critical of the traditional academy for producing graduates lacking in practical, ready-to-use career skills.

Territorial concerns of the schoolhouse, the campus and corporate education seem artificial, however. We all are engaged in different versions of the same process.

Colleges and universities excel in the study, description and analysis of ideas, phenomena and events. However, a significant shift has taken place in the way practitioners pass on knowledge traditionally studied in the academy. More often than not, the world-class experts in a discipline are concentrated within the business communities which conduct the enterprise. Economic and professional incentives tend to concentrate experts "in the field," not on the campuses.

For many corporate executives, the place to learn the state of the art for a variety of endeavors is where the work is being practiced. It might be at the Wharton School, but it's probably at the Aetna Institute. It might be at Cal Tech or MIT, but it's probably at Bell Labs, IBM or Wang. This is not an indictment of graduate schools; it is rather an understanding that the academy has no monopoly on the transmission and creation of knowledge.

In New Jersey, a step to effectively resolve this dichotomy began in 1972 with the creation of Thomas Edison State College. Thomas Edison is the state's only college exclusively for adult learners. Our 7,800 adult students live in every state and almost 70 other nations. These students, average age 39, enroll in five baccalaureate-degree programs and six associate-degree programs. While we are headquartered in downtown Trenton near the State Capitol, we do not offer classroom instruction. Our students learn in the marketplace and come to us to prove the value of that learning as measured by the highest standards of the academy.

Thomas Edison accepts credit from corporate courses that have been evaluated by the American Council on Education and found to be equivalent to traditional collegiate courses. Within New Jersey we have permanent relationships with more than 75 major corporations, including AT&T;, Kepner-Tregos, Atlantic Electric and the American Institute of Banking, where employees receive college credit for the appropriate corporate courses they complete. Through transfer of credits and individual study options -- including classes delivered via computer network -- students learn on their own and then earn credit by sitting for examinations.

The organizing principle behind our college is embodied in our namesake. A man of enormous intellect and genius, Thomas Edison never attended college. Like Edison, it is irrelevant whether our students acquire their learning from a course at Princeton University, a county college, from AT&T;, the Aetna Institute, or Wang Laboratories. What is important is that the student has acquired college-level learning, can demonstrate that he or she possesses the necessary competencies and is prepared to earn the academic credentials which validate them.

Our success -- and the success of our students -- is a hopeful sign that the narrow, territorial concerns which have kept business and education apart too long can in fact be bridged. Academic discipline can indeed blend with corporate know-how and result in a richer texture of learning and application. The higher education of tomorrow is already here today. To judge by reports of business, higher education leaders, students and graduates, its success is a hopeful sign for the future of learning, the economy, and society itself.

George A. Pruitt is president of Thomas Edison State College.

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