Report: College Enrollment Pool Increasingly Turning to Adult Learners

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by Amara Phillip

Years after finishing high school, Tracy Perez is finally in college, working to complete her bachelor’s degree. Help from the military provided an incentive for Perez to complete her education.

But according to a new report from the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), returning to college may become a necessity for millions of adults like Perez.

The report, “Not Just Kids Stuff Anymore: The Economic Imperative for More Adults to Complete College,” finds that the demand for college-educated workers is expected to rise 16 percent by 2018. Yet, what has traditionally been a reliable source of workers—high school graduates—are expected to diminish over the next decade.

In order to keep up with the demands of an increasingly competitive workforce, a growing number of adults will need to attend—or complete—college.

“Congress, state governments and colleges can all support adult credential completion by recognizing that adult students are a substantial and growing share of the undergraduate student population and adjusting policies accordingly,” the authors write.

Cheryl Blanco, vice president for special projects at the Southern Regional Educational Board (SREB), says that the CLASP report, though troubling, brings much needed attention to the plight of adult learners, who have complex schedules and often struggle to balance school, work and family.

Blanco says that the national debate over college completion has excluded large numbers of students who have college credentials but have yet to finish their degrees.

“Everyone’s so concerned with high school students going on to the college, but they have such a larger number of people out there who would like to complete their degree to make them more competitive in the job market,” she says.

Blanco points to programs in several SREB-member states—such as Kentucky, Louisiana and West Virginia—which are developing pilot projects specifically targeted to adult students. Many of these programs focus on offering flexible schedules which include online or blended coursework.

In Oklahoma, a college completion program, called “Reach Higher,” is geared specifically toward adults—age 21 or older—who have accumulated some college credit. Students then work toward a bachelor’s of organizational leadership degree, which provides training in business administration, accounting and communications.

“[It's] really a personalized degree program that allows mostly adult students to take the credits that they’ve earned that may be in several different majors—maybe they have switched majors or something along that line,” says Ben Hardcastle, director of communications at Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education.

“They have a lot of credit, but not in a lot of areas. And this allows counselors to pull together a lot of that credit that they possibly can,” he says.

Perez, who grew up in Hopkinton, Mass., found herself in a familiar predicament after high school—she wanted to go to college, but didn’t have the means to do so.

“I took a year off and the plan was to go to college, but the year came and went,” she says.

And though she wasn’t poor, she was never pressured by her parents to attend college.

“They didn’t expect me to go to college because they didn’t go to college themselves,” she says.

So she joined the U.S. Army, drawn by its promise to pay for her college education, should the need ever arise.

Eventually, the time came when she began seeking advancement through the ranks. But found that she could only get promoted if she earned an associate’s degree. So, Perez enrolled in Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs, Colo., as a campus-based student, eventually earning an associate’s degree in general studies.

Perez, now a 34-year-old mother of two, is currently living in Orlando, Fla., where she works as contracts specialist for the U.S. Army. She’s also taking online classes at the University of Maryland-University College.

Like many adult learners, the decision to take online classes was borne of necessity.

“In the early part of my academic career, I would go to a classroom environment,” she says. “But because of my demanding schedule, the only way I can get my education is to go online.”

At UMUC, Perez is working toward a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Though she’s been supported by her employer, she says she still feels like a bit of an outsider.

“I feel like I’m the only one here who doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree,” she says. “I feel like I’m the minority.”

The Army currently offers her around $4,500 a year in tuition assistance.

“At the rate I’m going at, that’s perfectly fine,” she says. Though since she’s taking four classes this semester, she’s exceeded her cap for the year.

Blanco says that an adult learner’s ability to receive financial aid is complex and varies from state to state.

Because so many non-traditional students work part-time and often pay for their own tuition, many are not eligible for state aid, though some lottery scholarship programs have provisions which allow nontraditional students to be eligible. Tennessee’s HOPE scholarship program, for example, has a nontraditional component.

And in recent years, employers have been forced to make cutbacks on programs—such as tuition assistance—which ease the burden on working students, says Blanco.

“At least, [students should] work with their employers with a schedule that would allow them to take classes in the evening or late afternoon,” she says.

“It’s critical for the overall economy that we draw more attention to the possibilities and the fact that the states are being responsive in building new approaches to help adult learners.”

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