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In Matters of Adult Education: Keep the Faith, Honor Tradition, and Construct the Future

Faculty Essay

Bryan Watkins
Dean and Associate Professor, School of Adult Learning

Multiple institutions diverge and converge in the marketplace, and for its part, North Park University has maintained a vigilant eye on the salient tenants of keeping the faith, respecting where it has come from, and continually looking to construct its future. Given its increasingly competitive nature and renewed governmental oversight, the field of adult education has never been one for the faint of heart. To intelligently dialogue about the landscape of adult education, one must first acknowledge that there exist at least two distinct models for delivering educational programs to adult learners: the for-profit model, which lately has been receiving a lot of unwanted media attention, and the nonprofit model under which North Park operates.

Given the recent rise in infractions committed by some for-profit institutions, the federal government has refocused its gaze on important issues such as program completion and loan default rates, as well as the likelihood of gainful employment after graduating. All of this has heightened the need for educational institutions to address the question most often asked by potential adult learners: “What is in it for me?” Or to rephrase it more precisely, “What value can I expect or derive from attending this program at your institution?” Taken at surface level, this would appear to be a very fair and reasonable question for potential adult learners to ask. It can, however, produce different answers, depending on whether the response comes from a for-profit institution, or a nonprofit institution such as North Park University.

As I think about how to answer this question through the lens of both North Park and the for-profits, I frame the response using Star Trek terminology: The question I ask in this situation is, “What is their prime directive?” (For the non-“Trekkies,” this translates as “What are the institutions’ key operating or guiding principles?”) I submit that the prime directive of for-profit educational institutions is to maximize shareholder value. I further suggest that there exists some level of dissonance between the desire to serve their students and the mandate to maximize or enhance the shareholder’s value. In effect, the focus seems skewed toward what benefits the shareholder rather than the student — certainly a difficult position for any dedicated educator or staff member. In contrast, North Park’s prime directive is to “prepare students for lives of significance and service.” This occurs whether the student is online, face-to-face, urban, suburban, domestically located, or abroad. Our distinctively Christian foundation, linked with our urban roots and desire to engage a multicultural world, provides the perfect context to create a vibrant learning environment for all adult students. I believe that these are some of the guiding principles that differentiate North Park University from others in the crowded adult education marketplace.

In addition to telling the University’s story, we also provide a significant portion of the answer to the value question by putting the words and phrases that describe our institution into practice. The dedicated faculty and staff within our adult and graduate programs are focused on mission, actively involved in ministry and service, and committed to shaping minds that will create future change. All of our adult students learn to answer the value question as they experience North Park University, where the convergence of faith, strong traditions, and a highly motivated community of learners collaborate to engage the present and shape the future. As adult educators, we are all committed to the charge of preparing our students for lives of significance and service by impacting their hearts, energizing their minds, and nurturing their souls. And I know that the fruits of our combined labor will continue to manifest in the actions of our graduates.

Next Steps

Read more from the Winter 2013 North Parker.

Dr. Bryan Watkins