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Let’s have an adult conversation about college

They are one of the most underserved college student groups. Their members cut across every racial/ethnic group. Their numbers are massive. Their college completion is essential to the future of the country, its economy, and its civic infrastructure. If we fail them, we fail. Who are they? They are the 55 percent of adults in the workforce with no two- or four-year college degree or meaningful postsecondary certification. They are a dominant group in our workforce and, given the country’s demographics, will define our workforce for the foreseeable future.

Two-thirds of the new and replacement jobs over the next decade will require a college credential. Despite our young and fast growing Latino population, there are neither the numbers nor the time to meet the need for an adequately educated workforce in the foreseeable future through only better educating our children (which of course we must do as well). If you want to know what the U.S. workforce will look like in 10 years, for the most part you can look around and imagine everyone in the workforce now 10 years older and equally undereducated. We can change that projection by setting aggressive goals and implementing proven strategies to increase adult college participation and completion. It is past time for an adult conversation about college access and success. We must create programs that allow college to come to adults in ways adapted to their complicated lives where work and family demands are being juggled.

Almost 17 percent of our working age adults actually have some college but no degree or workforce relevant certification. They are college stop outs: the product of a time when student success rates were less of a concern to higher education. Tens of thousands have significant numbers of credits toward an associate or bachelor’s degree. Many states and systems have identified this particular group for attention. They are creating successful pathways to certificates and degrees adding thousands of better educated people to their workforce, their tax rolls, and their communities in relatively short order. If we could succeed with even 20 percent of this population nationally it would be a game changer for the economy.

An even larger number of adults (26 percent) have only a high school diploma. At one point that was good enough for a decent job and a middle class life. However, as the demands of this new economy have changed so has the opportunity for high school graduates. Their ranks were devastated by the Great Recession. We lost 5.6 million jobs available to them during the recession, and since the recovery began, the numbers have continued to worsen. By comparison, there are 2 million more jobs for four-year college graduates than before the recession began. Employers, colleges, and policy leaders must collaborate to create pathways to a college credential that are accessible and affordable for these adult high school graduates.

Good work around the nation is defining what effective practice looks like and producing promising results that can be scaled. More funders in philanthropy and at the federal level are focusing their resources on adult college completion.

Then there are the nearly 12 percent of adults without a high school diploma. For them the future is extremely bleak. While we have programs to help many of these adults obtain a high school equivalent credential, these programs must be expanded and redesigned. The finish line has changed. The metric of success must be college readiness followed by completion of a valuable college credential.

Embedded within all these groups are tens of thousands of veterans returning from service in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Their military training, like the work experience of all adults, must be credited through prior learning assessments to accelerate their progress to a credential and reduce costs for both them and the government. Much of what we will do to focus our policies and practices on adult needs will serve these veterans as well. There is no group to which we have a stronger moral obligation to remodel our system to ensure they can successfully integrate into civilian life.

There is good news. Good work around the nation is defining what effective practice looks like and producing promising results that can be scaled. More funders in philanthropy and at the federal level are focusing their resources on adult college completion. So perhaps we are ready for an adult conversation about college: a conversation that identifies state, regional, and institutional policies and effective practices necessary to reach adult learners at scale. These strategies must include setting interim and long-term goals for adult college completion, identifying key metrics to use in analyzing progress, implementing scalable programs to provide credit for prior learning, and convening key partners (e.g., employers) to create strategies that smartly engage us in the mutually reinforcing activities that create large-scale impact. Providing prior learning credit particularly has been shown to be a powerful strategy, more than doubling the chances adults will complete a degree. Given the opportunity and the numbers, significant success in providing pathways for undereducated adults to complete college in the midst of their complicated lives will be a game changer for millions of people and for the country as a whole.

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