WASHINGTON — As the concept of free community college continues to take root throughout the country, policymakers need to give more thought to the role that such plans can play in the lives of adult learners, not just students coming straight out of high school.
That was one of the key takeaways from a panel discussion on free community college plans Thursday during the Education Commission of the States’ “National Forum on Education Policy,” which drew 580 attendees, including state lawmakers and state higher education officials.
While the federal government and half of all states have adopted postsecondary degree attainment goals, policymakers must make sure those goals include adult learners, said Jesse O’Connell, strategy officer at the Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that focuses on increasing the number of Americans with postsecondary credentials that lead to work.
“While it’s important to think about our K-12 pipeline, we’re not going to get there by making the K-12 pipeline maximally efficient alone,” O’Connell said. “We need to think about adults.
“The system as we currently have it designed may not be thinking about the needs that adults have or the barriers that adults face.”
The way many free community college plans are crafted now, they include criteria that exclude people in the 26 to 64 age bracket, said Sarah Pingel, policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States, or ECS.
For instance, she said, some of the plans include minimal high school GPAs or meeting certain FAFSA deadlines, which all signal an emphasis on more traditional students to the exclusion of adults.
“For adult students, that’s not really salient eligibility criteria for them anymore and doesn’t make a lot of sense for what the program is designed to do, which is increase attainment for students of all ages,” Pingel said.
Some states are considering free community college plans that include specific age cutoffs to participate in free community college plans or that limit participation to those who are finishing high school, Pingel said. Hawaii, for instance, has a proposed plan that limits free community college to students under age 26.
Over half of all states have considered proposals related to free community college, Pingel said, but only five states so far—Oregon, Tennessee, Kentucky, Rhode Island and Minnesota—have enacted such programs.
Andy Carlson, senior policy analyst at the State Higher Education Executive Officers, or SHEEO, said there are reasons why free community college plans tend to favor young students.
With high schoolers, Carlson said, educators have a “captive audience” with whom they can work and guide through the college application process.
In addition, it can be safely assumed that younger students have not exhausted all of their financial aid, whereas older students may have run out of financial aid on prior attempts at a degree. Financial aid is important to the equation because financial aid is part of how free community college becomes “free.”
“All that said, adults are much more challenging,” Carlson said. “There are challenges with outreach and marketing to adult students.”
He added: “One of the things we have to deal with moving forward is how to deal with those students who have used up their aid.”
SHEEO—with grant funding from the Lumina Foundation—is looking at designing a “promise-type aid program” for adult students in five states.
A synopsis of the plan obtained by Diverse shows that flexibility is considered key in the initiative.
“Adult students are a very diverse population, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution,” the synopsis states. “An adult promise program should create choices, not requirements.”
For example, it continues, some students have prior credit and need help applying those credits to their degrees, while others can complete competency-based courses to receive credit for prior learning.
“Some adults can only take evening courses, while others need courses scheduled during a typical K-12 school day,” it says. “A third group of students may only be able to take courses one or two days a week, while a fourth may look for weekend intensives and online courses.”
Peter Blake, director of the Virginia Council of Higher Education, said free community college plans are only good when states can afford them and when the end result are credentials that have value in the workplace and the community.
Pingel said she was a bit uneasy about putting too much emphasis on aligning free community college plans with the needs of industry because the economy is “constantly changing.”
Since it takes students a few years to earn a credential or a degree, she said, the demands of industry may have shifted and the credential may not be as valuable by the time students earn it.
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.