In graduation season, let's celebrate adult learners, too

Published may. 30, 2018

This month marks the beginning of a new chapter for many high school seniors who have worked hard and finalized their decisions on which pathway they will pursue after graduation. Across the country, family celebrations, college signing days, and community events are underway for these young people who’ve decided that a postsecondary education—such as a two-year college, a four-year university, an occupational training program, or an apprenticeship—is the next step to a prosperous future. With postsecondary enrollments at an all-time high for low-income, first-generation, and Hispanic students, there is much to celebrate and be proud of. 

Equally worthy of celebration is the growing number of non-credentialed adults who have decided to return to college to complete their degree or to pursue college for the first time. Today, they make up 38 percent of current undergraduates. They are 25 years or older and are more likely to be juggling multiple demands, including working part or full time, raising children, and caring for elderly parents, while pursuing their postsecondary education. These students are also likely to be living in poverty, and they continue to make sacrifices in pursuit of a better future.

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Today’s rapidly changing economy plays a large role in why anyone decides to go to college, regardless of age. Competitive global markets and technological advances have created a reality where a high school diploma alone isn’t enough to obtain a family-supporting career. Sixty-five percent of jobs will require some form of postsecondary education by 2020, so it’s imperative for adults, particularly for non-credentialed adults, to complete postsecondary pathways that ensure they won’t be left behind. 

We should continue to celebrate all those who have decided to pursue an educational pathway that will land them a job that pays livable wages. But, we should also encourage the individuals who aren’t on a postsecondary pathway to identify and access the options available to them.

So, how can our nation’s leaders and policymakers celebrate the adults who choose to pursue postsecondary pathways? For starters, they can recognize adult learners as a growing population within our nation’s colleges and universities. They also can enact policies and practices that meet the complex needs of today’s students. In line with many of the strategies embedded in JFF’s Accelerating Opportunity initiative, proven practices for assisting adult learners include:

  • Flexible course offerings, including non-semester-based scheduling
  • Co-enrollment in both basic education and for-credit courses for academically underprepared adults
  • Supportive services, both academic and nonacademic
  • Flexible financial aid offerings for low-income individuals
  • Alignment between postsecondary pathways and labor market needs, including contextualized learning
  • Access to prior learning assessments that allow adults learners to receive credit towards a degree or certificate for successfully demonstrating the skills and knowledge they developed in past education and workforce settings 
  • Access to high-quality acceleration strategies and competency-based education programs that allow learners to move ahead based on what they know and can do rather than the time they spend in the class

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Educational leaders and policymakers have a responsibility to ensure that the success of those who’ve dared to pursue a postsecondary education is not short-lived. They must enact systematic changes that meet the diverse needs of all postsecondary students. This includes providing the financial, academic, and nonacademic supports needed for all Americans to obtain high-quality degrees and credentials. 

As for the students, whether entering college directly out of high school or later in life, it is their responsibility to seek information, ask questions, and never give up. We must, however, make it much easier for students to do so. They will most certainly face challenges and obstacles along their postsecondary pathways, but given today’s economic demands, the consequences for not completing are far too great for everyone.