The Intersection

Postsecondary Pathways | Supporting Adult Learners During a Pandemic

February 10, 2021

“It is so important for policymakers and practitioners to develop supports for adult learners, but in particular, Black, Latino and Indigenous adult learners who often face additional higher education barriers as well as discrimination in the job market.”

-Dr. Javaid Siddiqi, President and CEO of the Hunt Institute

Speakers discussed the challenges faced by adult learners, including those with some college experience but no degree, as they seek to re-engage with higher education. The discussion focused on how pandemic disruptions have increased urgency for policymakers to support adult learners. Barriers for adult learners, such as child care needs, housing costs, and balancing work and class have become more evident during the pandemic.

“Our commission is committed to applying an equity lens in recognition that our systems, our structures, and our practices in education have marginalized Black, Latino and Indigenous learners in particular. Our equity lens is not limited to race and ethnicity, but it uses race and ethnicity as the primary tool to understand how to more equitably distribute resources and adopt policies to uplift all.”

-Ben Cannon, Executive Director of the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission

Ben Cannon described how the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission distributes funding to colleges, universities, and workforce boards. They administer state financial aid programs, monitor growth, and develop goals and strategies to support higher education institutions. Ultimately, the Commission strives for institutional accountability and is committed to more systematic changes in equity. Cannon said universities should have distinctions between youth and adult learners and a commitment toward rewarding higher value credentials, such as a certificate or degree. He spoke on Oregon’s goal of reducing systemic gaps for learners of color by half. The pandemic has created financial insecurities for adults and their families, which make continued learning difficult. The pandemic has exacerbated economic challenges for adult learners of color — this population has experienced a cut in employment by 30 percent. However, adult learners pursuing higher education can better contribute to their families and communities, as well as set an example for younger learners. Cannon suggested higher education institutions can support these adults through more flexibility in administration of financial aid and enrollment, whether for full-time or for particular programs.  The Governor of Oregon allows some discretionary funds to be used for financial aid for individuals who do not have determined status or need additional resources for childcare. He shared that along with the Lumina Foundation, the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Council developed a toolkit to support adult learners in continuing their education.

“We believe that all high quality credentials have value, whether that be a bachelor’s degree, a certificate, an industry recognized certification or an associate’s degree.”

-Dr. Danette Howard, Senior Vice President and Chief Policy Officer of the Lumina Foundation

Dr. Danette Howard shared that the focus of Lumina Foundation is to increase learning beyond high school and ensure more individuals earn a high quality credential. The organization wants to ensure that everyone has the opportunities and pathways to lead thriving lives. According to Dr. Howard, 37% of college students are over the age of 25 — a significant portion of the population. Therefore, policymakers should not solely focus on traditional students, who pursue higher education right after high school. She also noted that one in five college students are parents. Based on higher education data, Lumina developed a new strategic plan focused on adult learners and an equity first perspective. The organization prioritizes financial aid policies and has analyzed 48 states’ attainment goals. Lumina examines policy structures to determine if the policies support all learners, including adults. For example, policies that provide financial aid programs based on merit favor recent high school graduates, not adults. Dr. Howard suggested that funding formulas should support public institutions with the understanding that adult learners have significant financial need and considerable loan debt. She proposed that colleges consider flexible pathways with valuable credentials, so that certificates and certifications embedded within degrees provide great meaning and help in such unprecedented times.

“We have heard so much about students being college ready but we basically are trying to make colleges become students ready, and so essentially flipping the conversation”

-Dr. Yolanda Watson Spiva, President of Complete College America

Dr. Yolanda Watson Spiva shared how the Complete College America organization (CCA) creates reports and provides data to define and refine policies for higher institutions. CCA also helps create conditions for change and examines what policies look like in the legislative environment for longevity and sustainability at the institutional level. The organization works across 47 states with a focus on college- and state-level policies. In discussions about equity, Dr. Watson Spiva said that the college systems have not worked for BIPOC populations or women. She noted that higher education was defined previously by white men so there is a need support diversification of college populations.  Students need to be more prepared for college and colleges need to be prepared for more diverse students for different backgrounds. Colleges also need to meet any student where they are and help them be successful. Evidence-based strategies are used to focus on purpose, to help colleges align with the student experience, and help them meet their goals. CCA also wants to help colleges maintain momentum and provide multiple pathways for students to get started, earn credits faster, and stay on track to graduate. CCA helps postsecondary institutions provide structures, with multiple pathways to a college degree including support and removal of barriers. During the pandemic, 56% of jobs lost were those of women. As a result, women with children learning remotely have had a difficult time in continuing their own education. One specific federal program, Child Care Access Means Parents in Schools (CCAMPUS), provides seats in child care facilities for adults pursing education.

In summary, the discussion shared how adult learners, in particular Black, Latino, Indigenous populations, and women, require differentiated support, in contrast with recent high school graduates. Speakers shared considerations of policymakers and higher education institutions in supporting the needs of adult learners. Policy changes in financial aid, child care, flexible pathways, and certifications could allow more adults to continue their education, access greater career and financial opportunities, and contribute to the wellbeing of their community.

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