Skip to content

Adult-Ready Colleges: What Must Change in Policy to Seed Success

August 16, 2021

At a Glance

Episode 5 of JFF’s When Policy Meets Practice podcast explores ways in which federal and state policies should transform to better serve the needs of adult learners in postsecondary education.

Taylor Maag

There are millions of adults in the United States with a high school diploma or less, but postsecondary education and training is critical to succeed in today’s economy. Jobs that pay family-supporting wages, offer good benefits, provide opportunities for advancement, and aren’t at risk of elimination due to automation typically require education beyond high school. And while that has been the case for years, the disruption caused by the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated these labor market trends and has led to more adults pursuing higher education to better support themselves and their families. Today, 37 percent of postsecondary students are older than 25.

With an increasingly diverse population of students participating in higher education, it has become clear that there is a vast and growing disconnect between state and federal postsecondary policies and the needs of today’s learners, who are not only older than traditional college students but also more likely to be from low-income backgrounds and juggling work and family responsibilities along with their education.

Now more than ever, policymakers and postsecondary leaders need to adopt proven, cost-effective strategies to give adult learners an opportunity to build new skills quickly, especially if our nation hopes to have an equitable economic recovery.

Academic success relies on proactive and reactive supports for students.

Ajita Talwalker Menon, President, Calbright College

The latest episode of JFF’s new podcast, When Policy Meets Practice, delves into the ways federal and state policy can better support adult students by transforming postsecondary education to ensure that these learners have the same opportunities for success as others. Host Paul Fain explores this issue with two community college presidents: Ajita Talwalker Menon of California’s Calbright College and Robert Vela of Texas’s San Antonio College, both of whom are members of JFF’s Policy Leadership Trust. At the end of the episode, JFF’s Nate Anderson and Mary Clagett join Paul for a wrap-up conversation.

Robert kicks off the episode by telling Paul that more than 300,000 people in the San Antonio area have some college credits but not a postsecondary credential or degree. He says most of these former students are older and in need of flexible, short-term learning options that enable them to quickly acquire skills that local employers are seeking. Robert then notes that many adults would benefit from access to a holistic range of services to help them meet their basic needs. He asserts that community colleges can best provide those services through system partnerships and alignment—calling for state and federal policies that offer funding and other incentives to encourage postsecondary education to collaborate with the workforce system and employers.

In Ajita’s conversation with Paul, she reports that Calbright College, which offers fully online programming through the California Community College System, also has a student body that is mostly adults who are juggling work, economic pressures, and caregiving along with their learning. To meet the students’ needs, she says, Calbright offers asynchronous academic coursework coupled with an array of high-touch services. “Academic success relies on proactive and reactive supports for students,” she explains.

Policymakers and postsecondary leaders need to adopt proven, cost-effective strategies to give adult learners an opportunity to build new skills quickly.

Ajita tells Paul that the country needs worker-centered state and federal policies that position adult learners for career success. Pointing out that the definition of success must be tailored to the contexts of specific regional economies, she highlights the fact that Calbright has partnered with eight workforce boards across California to ensure that its coursework is aligned with the needs of local labor markets. Lastly, Ajita discusses California’s efforts to design and scale competency-based education models. She applauds the state’s commitment to de-emphasize seat time and course length requirements and move toward learning models that take individuals’ prior experiences into account and encourage learners to build new skills and competencies that are currently in demand.

Recommendations From California and Texas

Ajita and Robert both double down on the idea that state and federal policies can drive innovation by encouraging postsecondary systems to develop, test, and adopt new models that better serve adult learners. They also agree that federal and state funding mechanisms need to be based on students’ successes, not on arbitrary metrics like seat time, in order to create incentives that spur stronger student outcomes that lead to credential attainment, educational progression, and career advancement.

How to Listen to Episode 5 of When Policy Meets Practice

Tune in to the fifth episode of JFF’s When Policy Meets Practice podcast to hear Paul Fain talk with Ajita Talwalker Menon, Robert Vela, and JFF’s Nate Anderson and Mary Clagett about better ways to serve adult learners in postsecondary education. The episode is now available on JFF’s SoundCloud or on your favorite podcast platforms using this shortcut.

You can find each episode in the Jobs for the Future feed or in your favorite podcast app starting at 5:00 a.m. every other Monday. Be on the looking for Episode 6, which will be available starting August 30. It will feature a conversation in which Paul Fain and his guests examine how policies sometimes create disincentives for accelerating pathways toward college completion.

Related Content


When Policy Meets Practice Podcast Series

Series Trailer Paul Fain previews the podcast series, and JFF’s Lexi Barrett explains why policymakers should incorporate the views of on-the-ground practitioners in their policy strategies. Episode 10: Career Navigation Policy and Best Practices for…

June 21, 2021