Policies that Connect Adult Learners to Postsecondary Education

naspa divisions groups public policy division

Heidi Leming, PhD; Interim Vice Chancellor for Student Success, Tennessee Board of Regents

November 29, 2017

Adult learner/Non-traditional student post-secondary enrollment and success are essential to the national economic and college completion agenda. At the state policy level, enrolling (and graduating) additional adults, sometimes referred to as non-traditional students, enables states to have a more educated population, increasing state economic prosperity and competitiveness, and enhancing social mobility overall.  While identifying and addressing barriers to non-traditional student enrollment, retention, and success is not a new focus for student affairs professionals, the re-examination of institutional and state policy is needed in order to address proper alignment of support. Typically defined as a student over the age of 24, non-traditional or adult learners now comprise 40 percent of all undergraduate and graduate students nationwide (National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 2015).

While many states have begun to address the financial barriers that recent high school graduates might face through the creation of promise programs, few states have taken the next step to address the financial and personal barriers of adult learners. Many of these students may have either started a degree and never finished, or entered the workforce before earning a credential. As national and state economies improve, encouraging adults to earn a postsecondary degree becomes an even greater challenge. Yet, national data indicates that without a focus on educating the adult workforce, national and state economies may suffer from a lack of qualified and skilled workers. Furthermore, an investment in a postsecondary degree is one way to ensure that, during times of economic recession, an individual can remain competitive in securing or maintaining employment.

A 2007 report by the US Department of Labor highlighted barriers to success and strategies to support adult learners in higher education. Recommendations found in the report include developing federal-state partnerships to promote adult access and success in higher education; updating federal student aid programs to support working adults pursuing a postsecondary degree; creation of a national data system to record adult learner educational and employment outcomes; and identification of strategies to engage employers in financing and investing in higher education. The recommendations highlight the need for higher education to develop institutional policies that support flexible and accelerated learning options like prior learning assessments (PLA) as well as state educational policies that provide financing and student aid options to support adults. Since then, other national organizations like the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) and Education Commission of the States (ECS) have engaged in policy discussions with state higher education leaders about how to create state policies that encourage and support adult learner degree attainment.

A few states have taken the lead in developing state educational policy that supports the return of adult learners to postsecondary institutions. In states with performance funding models, institutions may receive “credit” for the enrollment and completion of adult learners that incentivize institutions to recruit and retain adult students. In states without performance funding, state policy efforts to remove financial barriers to enrollment suggest a promising practice that other states may replicate. In 2017, Indiana and Tennessee passed legislation to create promise programs for adult learners.

In Tennessee, about 34.3 percent of the state’s population aged 25-64 had a college degree, ranking Tennessee 42nd nationally on this measure. To address this completion challenge, Tennessee will launch its free tuition program for adult learners, referred to as “Tennessee Reconnect,” in Fall 2018. The state aid program is geared towards encouraging adult learners to earn a certificate or degree. Traditional definitions of an adult learner (anyone over the age of 24) were re-defined in the Tennessee Reconnect program. If a student can illustrate their independent status through the FAFSA, then the student qualifies to receive the benefits of the state-lottery-funded program. This means even a recent high school graduate, but one who may also be a parent and working full-time, would still have the same opportunity to receive financial assistance as someone who has been working for the past 20 years and now wants to get a degree for job advancement or to start a new career.

Institutions located in states that have yet to take a state-level policy approach to adult learners may find it useful to examine institutional policies that support adult learner degree attainment. A re-examination of institutional policies may start with the enrollment process itself. How many steps must an adult learner take to complete an application? Are there ways to simplify the application form? What are the institutional policies on required immunizations? Is it essential that immunizations be documented if the adult learner is taking online classes or enrolled part-time? An adult who will return to school after 20 years may have difficulty locating immunization documentation, high school transcripts, or test scores creating a barrier to enrollment.

Adults who enrolled at one point, but did not complete a credential may need additional advising on how to work through outstanding educational debt or how to overcome prior insufficient academic performance. For example, what assistance is provided to help adults who are in default on an educational loan? Can the institution waive outstanding balances the student may have for unpaid parking or library fines so they can re-enroll? While federal Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) requirements cannot be reset, state aid or institutional aid which is applied allows for a re-examination of institutional policies. For example, can institutions re-define how the GPA is calculated so that the adult student has a chance to make satisfactory academic progress when they re-enroll by only calculating the GPA after they start receiving the state aid? This process would essentially allow for the calculation of two different sets of grade point averages. One GPA that accounts for courses taken prior to receiving any state aid and one that accounts for courses the student takes when they re-enroll under any adult promise programs. Even when state-aid and federal aid is available to pay for tuition, institutions should also examine how foundation and other scholarship funds might assist with books, childcare, transportation, or other living expenses that can become barriers to the adult student’s persistence.

If progress is to be made nationally with expanding the number of adults with a post-secondary degree or credential, all policy sectors must be aligned to support the enrollment and progression of adult learners. Tackling the barriers that adult students face will be ineffective if the issue is thought of merely as a federal financial aid policy gap. Likewise, institutions must not rely solely on state-aid programs to assist them in recruiting adults to return to postsecondary education. An analysis of policies at the federal, state, and institutional level is imperative in order to develop a holistic approach to supporting adult learners from initial enrollment to completion.

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