Kansas City Scholars: An Innovative Solution to Adult Postsecondary AttainmentBarry Nickerson | Director of Higher Education Consulting Projects, CAEL
Nationally, we face the conundrum of millions of adults with some college and no credential. As the KC Scholars group began a deep dive to examine this issue locally, led by president and CEO Beth Tankersley-Bankhead, Ph.D., they found it prevalent in the six counties comprising the Kansas City metropolitan region. Nearly 400,000 adults in these six counties alone had some college credits but lacked a degree, many only one semester shy of a degree.
This population of nearly a half million adults spanned several generations. Many had children nearing college age. This presented an opportunity to reengage parents alongside their adolescent children. Accordingly, KC Scholars selected to focus one of its three program components on supporting adults to return to college and complete a credential.
KC Scholars is an innovative 501(c)(3) organization that provides college scholarships and wraparound support for low- and modest-income adult learners to confront barriers to their persistence, degree attainment, and reenrollment. The program was incubated at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and honors the vision of Ewing Marion Kauffman, an entrepreneur and humanitarian who advocated for access to postsecondary education for people of all ages, socioeconomic status and ethnicities.
The KC Scholars program reaches across state lines to directly impact adult student success. Two categories of adult learners are eligible for the scholarships. Scholarships can be applied toward baccalaureate degree attainment for adults with an associate degree or a credit-bearing credential. And, for adults with some credit and no degree, they can be applied toward an associate degree or a credit-bearing credential.
Many recipients of KC Scholars’ Adult Learner Scholarship are parents of children receiving an award through KC Scholars’ Traditional Scholarship or College Savings Match programs. In two cases, three generations of the same family are currently enrolled in higher education through the program!
KC Scholars’ scholarships may be used at KC Scholars’ Postsecondary Network of 17 campuses—public and private, two- and four-year, in Kansas and Missouri. Some of these institutions have worked historically with adult students, while others are dedicating resources toward improving adult degree attainment in the region.
Dedicated coaches work closely with adult learners the moment they enter the program and continue through completion. KC Scholars requires participants to take advantage of comprehensive campus-based support through at minimum the first two years of enrollment. Continuous support, community engagement and multigenerational enrollment encourage graduates to remain in the area, further boosting the economic benefits of KC Scholars. These newly credentialed adults can use their expertise to work in economic fields plagued with persistent—or growing—skills gaps.
To develop a program that addressed this complex, socioeconomic issue required collaboration and innovation—and 70 members of the regional community came to the table to work together in a forward-thinking, collaborative manner. KC Scholars and KC Degrees—a Kansas City program based on the Graduate Network model to support adults back to and through college—partnered with CAEL before the program launch to take stock of current practice related to serving adults. With funding support from the Kauffman Foundation, CAEL administered adult learner-friendly assessments at five of the 17 partner institutions in fall 2017. Now, in the 2019-2020 academic year, five additional campuses will take the assessment, and three of the original five will retake it, with funding support from the DeBruce Foundation and an evaluation conducted by the Kansas City Area Education Research Consortium.
These assessments asked institutional faculty, staff and adult students about how adult learner-friendly the campus is in order to create a gap analysis. This regional gap analysis identified existing areas of excellence, opportunities to improve support services across the region, and champions for subpopulations of adult students.
The survey results helped institutions better serve adult learners and prepared them for adult students who had been disconnected from higher education. Participating institutions received a report that quantified key challenges and charted how their strengths could be best leveraged in each area. In the spring of 2017, all 17 KC Scholars institutions convened together to review the results and develop action plans to mitigate their challenges.
This approach now underpins CAEL’s Adult Learner 360 diagnostic tool and consulting solution that continues to complement the excellent work that KC Scholars does for adult learners. In the parallel survey process, administrators test their own perceptions against those of their students. Many leaders found their internal areas of concern did not always align with adult students’ concerns. Student feedback spurred efforts to make the improvements that mattered most to them, such as expediting FAFSA verification and credit transferring. These practices help adult students persist in their studies, and the collected data serves as a benchmark to measure the impact of change over time on adult students’ success.
With most adult learners in the KC Scholars program working full time and managing family commitments, Tankersley-Bankhead knew that financial assistance was insufficient to guarantee success. Robust wrap-around support was critical. In their surveys, respondents validated the positive impact of robust and personalized college planning and advising. Adults underscored the importance of the support received from coaches trained to find flexible solutions to individual barriers, while KC Scholars also worked regionally to mitigate shared barriers.
Given the program’s solid foundation of preparation, inclusion and collaboration, it’s not surprising that KC Scholars constantly appraises its performance to ensure continuous improvement. Every year, as part of the scholarship renewal process, recipients are asked which supports they found most helpful and how supports can be improved or expanded to better serve them. KC Scholars shares this qualitative feedback with campuses, marrying it with the data they collect through the Adult Learner 360 assessment cycle and its third-party external evaluation.
KC Scholars can support up to 200 entering adult learners per year, and they are supported for five total years. Being responsive to the adult learner population, KC Scholars added a new early award application cycle to extend the application period for adults to allow for greater opportunity and accessibility.
Since May 2017, KC Scholars has awarded more than 420 Adult Learner Scholarships. Just two academic years later, over 30 recipients have completed their degree. Participation in the KC Scholars program impacts persistence as well. Scholarship recipients progress from their first to second year of college at a rate of nearly 90 percent—35 percentage points higher than the national average.
As KC Scholars continues to grow, Tankersley-Bankhead believes its use of student feedback in continuously and rigorously evaluating performance and impact will remain critical. Noting that post-traditional students are quickly becoming the new normal, she believes institutions across the nation would be wise in adopting this approach as they seek to better align their resources to meet the needs of increasingly diverse student populations.
You can learn more about KC Scholars at www.kcscholars.org.
Author Perspective: Association