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Delivering on Higher Education’s Promise for Adult Learners Requires Focusing on Equity

Higher education plays a role a successful workforce, which means recognizing and adapting to adult learners with competing responsibilities, prior learning and limited resources.

My father bought into the promise of higher education. After serving in Vietnam, he needed a plan for his life, so he enrolled in community college. A college education offered my father—a Black man and a veteran—the promise of a better life for himself and his family. 

Community college delivered on that promise. With his associate degree, my father found a steady job with the State of New York that paid him enough to buy a decent house, take our family on a summer vacation each year and save for both his kids’ college and his retirement.

Back then, adult learners like my father were relatively rare. Today, almost 4 in 10 college students are 25 and older. BILPOC students—students who are Black, Indigenous, Latinx and/or people of color—are overrepresented among the ranks of adult learners. To deliver on higher education’s promise for adult learners, institutions must focus on equity.

Equity means recognizing that students have different needs because they come from different circumstances. In far too many cases, inequities result not from deficiencies among groups or individuals but from systemic failures. Moreover, they have compounded over time and across generations. These conditions require institutions to understand that adult learners need different approaches, strategies and messages to reach them, help them gain access to college and support them in reaching their educational goals. If institutions focus on equity, they can address long-standing policies, perspectives and practices that, intentionally or not, marginalize students of color, students from underresourced communities and students whose earlier educational experiences did not serve them well.

Since 2009, the national college completion rate for adults between 25 and 62 has risen by nearly 16 percentage points. These gains are critically important because research shows that, compared to other working adults who aren’t in school, adult learners who earn a college credential see average pay increases that are 140% larger and are more likely to achieve upward mobility.

But this encouraging trend camouflages some troubling statistics. Only 54% of American adults have a postsecondary credential. Completion rates are much lower for people of color: Just 34% of Black adults, 28% of Hispanic and Latinx adults and 25% of American Indians and Alaska natives have earned a college degree or certificate. Though adult learners are every bit as committed to earning a college credential as their youngest peers, only about half meet their education goals.

Adult learners face many unique challenges. It’s clear that bybreaking down barriers and building the right programs more Americans can earn a college credential and achieve the social and economic mobility they seek. But these institutional performance gaps suggest that colleges and universities are not as keenly focused on equity as they should be. 

CCA works with organizations to implement equity-focused strategies that can improve completion rates for all learners. Between 2015 and today, almost all members of the CCA Alliance—a national coalition of 42 states, eight college systems and consortias and other partners—have improved on-time graduation rates for students pursuing two- and four-year degrees. CCA Alliance members are closing institutional performance gaps by age, race and ethnic background. Here are four successful strategies:

Institutions can build new structures to accommodate the complicated lives of adult learners. American higher education has traditionally been designed to meet the needs of 18-year-olds—predominantly white full-time students with financial support—who enroll at a four-year university immediately after high school. But significant numbers of today’s college students work full-time jobs. They’re raising children. More than half are below twice the federal poverty level. Their needs are much different than those of traditional college students. 

Institutions should schedule classes outside of traditional hours to make course attendance more convenient for working adults with family obligations. Institutions also should offer shorter and more intensive courses that value student limits on time and final resources.

Another structural reform involves awarding credit for competency, which can make earning a college credential faster and more affordable. Adult learners often arrive at college with prior learning, skills and knowledge from on-the-job training, industry-specific certifications or military training and experience, in my father’s case. 

Whatever the source, institutions and state systems should establish mechanisms through exams, portfolios or other prior learning assessments to recognize this experience and award appropriate college credits. This strategy can have enormous impacts: According to one recent study, credit for competency can increase completion rates by nearly 20% and save students as much as a year’s worth of classes and tuition payments.

Students need to get off to a strong start, so institutions should provide corequisite support to help learners recharge their academic skills. Traditional remediation is a dead end for too many adult learners because it requires spending time and money they don’t have on courses that don’t count toward their degrees. With corequisite support, institutions and state systems can design structures and pedagogical approaches for students who need extra help to complete gateway requirements in college-level math and English in a single academic term. 

Finally, it’s critically important that institutions keep their students on track to timely completion by ensuring they take enough credits each semester. This element requires frequent and coordinated communication efforts to inform all students about the courses they need to take and the benchmarks they need to meet. It also requires matching student credit loads with the credits required for on-time graduation. 

The default credit load for full-time students should be 15 credits per semester. Part-time students should have a plan to graduate within 150% of the expected time. For part-time students, many of whom are balancing job and family responsibilities with coursework, institutions should schedule appropriate courses at times and in modalities that work for them, modify the traditional semester to shorter terms and provide student support outside the usual 9-to-5 weekday window. Each extra semester costs extra time and money. The longer college takes, the more likely life will get in the way of students earning the credential they’re seeking. 

Despite these successes, much work remains. We must continue to work to make college more affordable. We must ensure that every college student has clear academic goals that connect to career goals and a plan to reach them. We must identify the largest institutional performance gaps and work to close them. We must implement these changes at scale, so all students can benefit from them. And we must renew our promise to students that completing a college credential will help them pursue the American dream. 

Adult learners like my father are highly motivated to do better for themselves and their families. American higher education is the pathway to that American dream. It is the responsibility of all colleges and universities to focus on equity to build pathways for students and tear down any barriers that stand in the way.

Yolanda Watson Spiva is the President of Complete College America. This article was adapted from keynote remarks at the 85th Annual ACHE Conference in Charleston, South Carolina on October 16.