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Expanding Adult Economic Mobility Opportunities in Three States 

February 5, 2024

At a glance

To promote greater economic advancement for adult learners, states and colleges must recognize that adults face unique barriers that call for new strategies, supports, and learning models.

Contributors
Maya Atakilti Manager
Jennifer Freeman Senior Director
Julia Lawton Director, Achieving the Dream
Practices & Centers

For many adults without a postsecondary credential, community colleges are the logical choice for accessing education and training—yet too often, learners encounter institutions that aren’t designed to meet their needs.

Across the country, states and colleges are working to attract and reengage adult learners through programs offering free tuition and other incentives. These programs, often referred to as Adult College Promise or Adult Reconnect programs, are to be applauded as they reduce a critical barrier preventing more adults from benefiting from the opportunities afforded by a degree or certificate. However, financial barriers are just one piece of the puzzle, as completion data from these programs shows (see below). To promote greater economic advancement for adult learners, states and colleges must recognize that adults face unique barriers that call for new strategies, supports, and learning models.

Evidence-based Solutions to Help Adults Succeed

Adult learners are juggling multiple work and family responsibilities and need to see a clear connection between college and career advancement. Some evidence-based solutions to help adult learners succeed include:

  • Flexible learning models that accommodate their schedules
  • Accelerating the time to completion
  • Offering credit for prior work and life experience
  • Advising adults about career opportunities in the local labor market and programs that help get them there

 

In a study of several state programs, just 50% of adults who had some college credits but no degree who re-enrolled were retained in the second year.

A new effort led by Jobs for the Future (JFF) and Achieving the Dream (ATD) seeks to improve on the results of current adult learner efforts through a two-tiered approach that adopts evidence-based strategies for adult learners, with special focus on learners that have been most marginalized by existing systems: adults of all racial backgrounds who are experiencing economic hardship and Black, Latine, and Indigenous populations.

A Two-Tiered Approach to Adult Learner Success

In the Improving Economic Mobility for Adult Learners initiative, we are supporting state and college stakeholders in Michigan, New Jersey, and Virginia to tackle some of the common challenges that hinder adult learners from enrolling in or completing a postsecondary credential. These stakeholders are changing policy and practice at both the state and institutional levels. We believe this two-tiered approach will drive impact whether the state community college “system” is a centralized entity or a non-centralized alliance of independent colleges.

Benefits of the two-tiered, state/institution approach:

  • Colleges and state-level entities bring distinct but complementary strengths to the work of transformative change.
  • Coordination and collaboration help ensure that policy is grounded in the needs of students and colleges, and that policies are implemented with fidelity.
  • Changemakers at each college are not working in silos but sharing common approaches and strategies for successful implementation.
  • Working with a smaller group of colleges creates opportunities to test, refine, and document best practices, which can then be scaled across the entire system.

Collaborating to Address Common Challenges in the Adult Learner Experience

Building on existing policy and practice and an analysis of adult learner needs, these states and colleges have centered their policy and practice changes on common challenges adult learners experience, including inconsistent opportunities to earn credit for what they already know, minimal career advising, and limited connections to supports.

Challenge: Adult learners aren’t getting consistent opportunities to earn credit for what they already know.


Offering credit for learning gained through work, volunteer roles, or personal pursuits is known to benefit adults seeking postsecondary credentials. By acknowledging the wealth of knowledge and skills adult learners have amassed through various life experiences, colleges save students money and time, cultivate a sense of belonging and empowerment, and reinforce learning as a lifelong, multifaceted endeavor. Yet, for many learners, credit for prior learning (CPL) policies and processes can be complicated, burdensome, inconsistent, or limited. To expand access to CPL opportunities for adult learners, many colleges in this initiative are identifying where existing opportunities to earn CPL are being underutilized, simplifying the process to access CPL opportunities, equipping advisors and faculty with information on CPL opportunities, and developing new CPL opportunities in select programs. To complement this institution-level effort, the state organizations are developing policies or guidance to help align CPL policies and practices across the colleges, with the aim of alignment and consistency across the system.


Examples from Michigan

New college practices
Grand Rapids Community College is tackling multiple interconnected barriers that limit equitable access to CPL. Their approach includes removing all fees, streamlining internal processes, increasing awareness among faculty, staff, and advisors, and developing student-facing materials that are straightforward and culturally responsive.
State-level practice
The Reconnect legislation included an $80 per credit reimbursement to colleges for awarding CPL to Reconnect students. This reimbursement creates an incentive for colleges to reduce costs associated with CPL. It also creates an opportunity for the Sixty by 30 office to standardize definitions and reporting across all colleges, which in turn will help them continuously assess which Reconnect students are earning CPL, in what programs, and how CPL is contributing to program completion and successful transfers.

Challenge: Career advising—and connections to supports—comes too late in the journey for most adult learners.


Adult learners often come to higher education looking to change careers or move ahead in their current careers. However, most learners don’t engage in deep conversations about career aspirations until much later in their college journey, leaving them without critical information to guide program or course decisions. In recognition of the critical role that advisors play in ensuring students’ time is well-spent, many colleges and states in this project are training advisors to engage adult learners in career conversations from the beginning, using local labor market information to help learners make informed career and academic decisions.


Examples from New Jersey

New college practices
Union College in New Jersey has set a goal that 20% more students in their pilot group will choose an educational path that is aligned with high-demand careers. To reach that goal, they will be targeting general studies students for career-focused advising to help students choose a major with greater career potential. Currently, upwards of 11% of students chose “general studies” as their major.
State-level practice 
The New Jersey Council of County Colleges is planning to develop a statewide credit for prior learning policy and a web-based tool to provide information to students and advisors on credits available at different colleges for industry recognized credentials.

Looking Ahead

In the face of growing inequities, changing demographics, and rapid changes to the workforce that demand that workers continue to learn and adapt throughout their careers, it’s imperative that states and colleges work together to build comprehensive approaches to serving adult learners. We hope this initiative can provide a blueprint for other states to build from. As we move forward through the implementation of their strategies, we’ll share what’s working, what adjustments were needed, and what we’re learning about coordinated approaches to serving adult learners.

How can your state or college improve outcomes for adult learners?

Questions to consider:

  • What do you know about access, retention, and completion for adult learners? Are there differences when you disaggregate your data by race, gender, and Pell status?
  • Has your institution intentionally and consistently considered the adult learners’ journey from initial engagement through completion?
  • How can you ensure that adult learner needs and goals are included in the development of future advising and CPL policies and practices?
  • In what ways can you, as a state or college leader, engage in a two-tiered approach to find and implement solutions for adult learners, leveraging the strengths of both groups of stakeholders?

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