Adult Learners Key To U.S. Reclaiming College Completion Lead, Education Dept. Official Says - Higher Education
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Adult Learners Key To U.S. Reclaiming College Completion Lead, Education Dept. Official Says

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by Cassie M. Chew


WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama’s goal to increase the number of two- or four-year degree holding Americans by 2020 will require significant investments in educating nontraditional-aged college students, a U.S. Education  Department assistant secretary Wednesday told TRIO program administrators at the Council for Opportunity in Education’s annual seminar with the Education Department in Washington.

Obama said he wants America to reclaim the status as the nation with the highest proportion of the population with college degrees in the world by 2020.

“Adults are crucial to achieving the president’s vision,” said Dr. Brenda Dann-Messier, assistant secretary of vocational and adult education with the department of education.

The U.S. ranks 10th in college-completion rate for 25- to 35-year-olds; 75 million working-aged adults don’t have college degrees and aren’t enrolled in college; 35 million have difficulty with reading comprehension of short passages; more than 13 million have low literacy skills, Dann-Messier said.

Under the Obama administration, national education priorities include expanding services to low-income adults and youth and TRIO administrators can submit proposals for projects that will help more adults return to school, Dann-Messier told TRIO grantees.

TRIO is a set of federally funded college programs that support low-income, first-generation students from disadvantaged backgrounds in their pursuit of a college degree. More than 850,000 sixth-graders through college graduates participate in about 2,800 TRIO programs across the country.

TRIO programs provide academic tutoring, personal counseling, mentoring, financial guidance and other support for educational access and retention. The programs include: Upward Bound; Upward Bound Math/Science; Veterans’ Upward Bound; Student Support Services; Educational Opportunity Centers; and the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program. The Educational Opportunity Centers primarily serve displaced and underemployed adults in 130 locations around the U.S.

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The administration “sees TRIO as part of our strategy to encourage college completion,” Dann-Messier said. “I am here to improve education for adults and community college students.”

Dann-Messier’s message to TRIO administrators comes as COE, an organization established in 1981 to provide guidance to as well as mobilize college opportunity professionals at major U.S. higher education institutions, is lobbying Congress to increase funding for TRIO programs by $150 million. 

Obama’s fiscal year 2011 proposed education budget includes $910.1 million for TRIO programs which is the same funding level for all programs in fiscal year 2010. TRIO officials see the level program funding over consecutive years as a program cut because new spending will fail to cover inflation’s added costs to TRIO activities. 

“The proposed limited spending on Talent Search and other TRIO programs undermines the Obama administration’s education agenda of meeting the pressing economic needs of low-income students,” Dr. Arnold L. Mitchem, COE president said in a February 2010 press statement.

“It’s imperative that federal investments are made to Talent Search and other TRIO programs to maintain quality services, meet legislative mandates and contribute to the president’s goal of ensuring that the United States has the highest proportion of students graduating from college in the world by 2020.”

At COE’s annual seminar with Education Department officials, Dann-Messier also said the department is transforming into an agency that will support innovation from one that has, in the past, been considered as a compliance monitoring agency. 

“The department is moving to a smaller, more limited role that will give grantees greater freedom to choose what meets student needs,” said Messier, who joined the administration five months ago. Before her post in the Department of Education, Dann-Messier spent a decade as president of Dorcas Place, a college-training and workforce preparedness center for low-income residents in Providence, R.I. 

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Dann-Messier encouraged TRIO administrators to build stronger ties to their communities and use data to pinpoint what works.

“The programs must have the facts to tell our stories,” she said. “Outcomes will matter more than ever.”

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