To Boost the Economy, Focus on Adult Students

By Linda Baglia -

Is your state working to help more people earn college credentials? Perhaps someone you know dreams of going back to college to finally earn that degree. A sampling of recent headlines from across the country suggests we might be reaching critical mass on the issue: “Why a College Degree Is Still Worth It”; “Back on Campus: As More Adults Return to School, Colleges Strive to Meet the Needs of Nontraditional Students…”; “A Win for Businesses and Workers: ‘Upskilling’ Programs That Help Workers Earn Postsecondary Credentials Sweeping the Nation.” What’s behind this wave of adults looking to return to school to earn degrees? One answer is that our changing economy now demands more from workers. In years past, a good job could be had with just a high school diploma. Not so today — many industries now require at least some college experience, even for entry-level positions. Unfortunately, millions of workers across the country lack the needed credentials to help them obtain stable employment in this new economy. The good news is state leaders and community organizations have ramped up efforts to reach out to adult students and help them re-enroll in college.

Increasing postsecondary attainment has been a priority for state policy makers for several years now. Most states are grappling with looming workforce shortages as the surge in baby boomer retirements threatens to stall economic growth. Across the country, business owners struggle to find and keep skilled employees. In 2010, Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce released their landmark report, Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements through 2018, which found 63 percent of all jobs would soon require some sort of degree or credential beyond a high school diploma, and that by 2018 the nation would face a deficit of at least 3 million workers with the needed credentials. In response, many states established ambitious postsecondary attainment goals that are aligned with Lumina Foundation’s Goal 2025 and designed to influence state level policies and practices. As of today, 41 states have such postsecondary attainment goals in place. Actually meeting those goals, however, is a much harder task — one that requires states and postsecondary institutions to re-examine how they view their student populations, and the changes needed to better serve them.

The landscape of higher education as we traditionally think of it is in rapid evolution. The “typical” college student is no longer the norm — nontraditional students, who are over 25 years old, have delayed college enrollment and often work full time to support a family — make up a significant percentage of today’s college goers. Lumina Foundation data reveal students over the age of twenty-five make up 38 percent of the undergraduate population, and 58 percent of those work while enrolled in school, while 26 percent are raising children. High school enrollment has declined nationally and future high school graduates are projected to come from increasingly diverse backgrounds. This will include students of color and low-income students, who have historically and disproportionately been denied access to educational advantages, and experience lower rates of college success as a result. These realities plus the prohibitive costs of a college degree present a huge challenge for institutions in their role as economic engines for states, and for state policy makers trying to meet workforce needs.

The good news is that states and postsecondary institutions are increasing investment in nontraditional students, especially “returning adult students” — those who might have attended college in the past but never earned a degree. A recent report on adult student completion found “at least 36 million Americans between 25 and 64, comprising nearly 22 percent of the working-age population have college experience but have stopped out and have not yet finished their degrees.” Sadly, too many of these students were not well served during their first attempts with higher education. Encouraging them to return to school to finish a degree is a challenging endeavor that requires a coordinated effort on the part of colleges and universities, community partners and state leadership. But strategic investment in adult learners is simply smart policy — ambitious attainment goals cannot be met without reengaging these former students, who in many cases are just a few credits shy of earning a degree or certificate. The benefits for students are clear — U.S. Federal Reserve data show that the median net worth of college degree holders is more than four times higher than those without degrees. And children of college degree holders are more likely to go to college themselves and more likely to succeed at earning a degree.

But adult learners face many barriers to a successful re-entry into college — most work full time to support families, they may have exhausted all of their financial aid on previous attempts to earn a degree, and they might hold credits from multiple institutions and have no idea how to collect those credits and put them towards a degree or certificate. Adult students need substantial guidance, flexible scheduling and targeted supports, such as advising and financial incentives to help them succeed.

A few states have already made significant efforts to re-engage adult learners and tap into the huge potential of this underserved population:

  • Tennessee. Tennessee is a national exemplar in adult re-engagement. Launched in 2015 as part of the state’s “Drive to 55” attainment goal initiative (55% of Tennesseans earning an associate’s degree or higher by 2025), the Tennessee Reconnect program allows adult students to enroll in any of the 27 Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology tuition free. The state recently launched a new outreach campaign, Tennessee Reconnect + Complete, which targeted “an estimated 110,000 adults over age 25 who completed at least half of their college credits but never finished.”
  • Georgia. Go Back. Move Ahead. is a collaboration between the University System of Georgia, the Technical College System of Georgia and the Georgia Student Finance Commission that offers advising, online coursework and prior learning assessment to returning adult students.
  • Indiana. In 2016, Indiana unveiled You Can. Go Back. — a statewide effort that provides grant funding and connects adults with Indiana colleges that specialize in returning adult students. Most of the participating institutions offer special programs for adults that feature flexible scheduling, online courses and college credit for previous work and military experience.
  • Texas. GradTX is a statewide program sponsored by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board designed to help adults with some college credit return to a Texas university to finish a bachelor’s degree.

And notable nationwide initiatives:

  • Adult Promise Initiative. Spearheaded by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) and funded by a grant from Lumina Foundation, the Adult Promise Initiative pilot program is working in five states — Indiana, Maine, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Washington — to develop effective programs that specifically target returning adult students. Program design includes an emphasis on funding strategies, flexible scheduling and wrap around support services.
  • The Graduate! Network. The Graduate! Network, which operates in various cities throughout the nation, works to bring together regional stakeholders and resources to help “comebackers” (adults with at least 15 transferable college credits) return to school. The network provides various supports to returning adults from the moment they decide to go back to school until they graduate.

These initiatives represent just a handful of adult-learner focused programs that are springing up around the country. The ultimate success or failure of these programs hinges on the amount of energy spent to identify and reach out to adult learners, and by the quality of academic programming and supports students are given to ensure they reach their goal. This is difficult work that will require significant investment from state legislatures, postsecondary institutions, community organizations and local employers, but the return on that investment will be substantial. Adult learners are ready and willing to offer states a wealth of experience and the untapped potential needed to build a more skilled 21st Century workforce.

Linda Baglia is a senior associate at HCM Strategists.

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