Golden opportunity: California’s quest to prioritize older students

A new California Competes report highlights the potential of bringing millions of former students back into higher education and the value it has in meeting workforce needs.
By: | March 3, 2021
Wes Hicks/Unsplash

The organization California Competes calls it an “Untapped Opportunity” – the more than 6.8 million individuals age 25-54 in the state that possess a high school diploma but not a college degree.

Half of them gave up their pursuit before they even started. Half began that path but never finished for a variety of reasons. All of them might welcome an opportunity to be taking courses, getting trained and gaining knowledge that can help them improve their career paths.

Are higher institutions willing to help bridge that gap? In California, they are certainly embracing the idea.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has been on the Regents of the University of California system, has pushed hard to try to help this key group. He included in this year’s budget proposal a $250 million one-time investment to strengthen the connection between higher education and employers. He also earmarked $786 million for the UC and California State University systems to create more equity and diversity in underserved and older populations.

Those are all positive developments, and California through the years has been receptive in listening to and acting on bold ideas. Even before the pandemic, Newsom proposed a $10 million investment in online degree programs for both university systems. He also has pitched the expansion of education for incarcerated adults.

And yet, for many individuals within that age bracket, gaining access to degrees and workforce opportunities have been slow. Other than small spikes during the Great Recession and the rise of for-profits colleges, enrollment numbers have either remained level or decreased overall. The stakes have become much higher because of the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Now more than ever, our higher education institutions must embrace their role in reasserting California’s economic strength by supporting those most vulnerable to job loss and underemployment,” said Dr. Su Jin Gatlin Jez, Executive Director of California Competes. “California has everything to gain by reimagining higher education to meet the needs of today’s students and attract those Californians who have yet to fulfill their potential in the job market.”

One of the ways it can help is by expanding financial aid pools. The budget proposal included more than $20 million in aid for student parents to go along with several workforce initiatives. Removing age restrictions to financial aid and time-out-of-school barriers also would help.

“The way to get adults back into college is to make them relevant and make the return on investment to earnings really clear,” she says. “At California Competes, this is one of our priorities. We think that the governor’s office is hearing that loud and clear. With their specific investments focused on work-based learning and career technical ed, I think the legislature has been interested in expanding opportunities to strengthen college affordability by reforming our state financial aid program.”

The barriers

Jez says the 25-54 population has a lot to gain by coming back to education and nothing to lose, especially with job losses high and wages remaining low.

“With the added earnings that come from having completed a postsecondary credential, or whether it’s an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree, there’s a good incentive for these adults to capitalize on the time that they have already invested in higher education to complete their degree,” she says.

In its publication Untapped Opportunity: Understanding and Advancing Prospects for Californians without a College Degree, it discusses the chasm that exists between the jobs that will be needed in the future and those who are unprepared for them.

“As the labor market changes – even those that have a bachelor’s degree are realizing they need additional training and you don’t have that same job for your whole career – higher ed is going to have to be more responsive, not only in serving those without any sort of degree, but also those with degrees,” she says. “Otherwise, you’re just going to lose adults. You’ve got to have more frequent on ramps for students to enroll. You have to have flexibility in your schedules, thinking about the lives of adults and what makes it hard for adults to complete.”

That means reaching non-traditional students in non-traditional ways. Targeting only 18-22-year-olds in the overall process – admissions, retention, instruction and completion – could leave institutions vulnerable in the future.

“Perhaps those that have degrees will be the ones that have more power and be able to sort of push more on the traditional structure of higher ed – that you get your training up front at 18 and then you’re done for the rest of your lives. I haven’t seen a shift yet in the data around enrollment, but I’m hopeful,” she says.

“This crisis gives university leaders an opportunity to take a risk or talk about taking a risk that they wouldn’t be able to otherwise – to sort of reimagine and transform the traditional higher ed model to create programs that work for these individuals.”

How California is going the distance

One of the ways California is coming to the rescue for this unique student subset is by providing them  ways to complete their goals through online learning.

The state has launched Calbright College, a fully online, mobile-first community college that serves adults with flexible course schedules and with a focus on relevant career paths. It has teams that work to connect employers with those who are going through the programs, so there is more to gain for those who attend than simply acquiring an associate’s degree. New career pathways are continually added depending on what employers are seeking, and some of those include hot fields such as coding, IT and cybersecurity.

“They only offer a handful of programs focused on high-demand, high-wage fields,” Jez says. “Even though it’s only a fraction of the students statewide, we think this investment in Calbright College can pave the way and demonstrate how the state can serve this population better.”

The online component is particularly enticing, especially in California and other expansive states, where it might be hundreds of miles or so to campus. Of course, colleges must ensure high-speed internet is available too. Those may not be barriers for an 18-year-old who is willing to live far from home, but it likely would be for that 35-year-old living in a remote location who has a spouse, a child and a job.

“We have regions of the state where there’s no university within 100 miles,” she says. “Research shows that 50 miles is a critical barrier for students to travel. And then for parts of our state where there are public universities, they’re fully enrolled and they can’t take another student despite the demand.”

The good news, Jez says, is that CSU Chancellor Joseph Castro anticipates that up to half of the courses offered in his system this fall will still be online, while UC President Michael Drake has indicated more use of online classes, too.

“The rollout of online ed is really important for California to figure out. We’re a little behind the ball,” she says. “With everyone having had gone online this year, we can’t miss this opportunity to leverage what we’ve learned from this disruption and go back to where we were. There’s a real opportunity to strengthen the accessibility and the quality, the effectiveness of online education to better serve adults, to increase access.”

Beyond that, she says higher ed institutions also can bridge gaps by offering credits for prior learning, as California community colleges and the Cal State system have done. Other incentives such as competency-based education credits, paid internships with workforce partners and tuition assistance all can play a part in helping boost outcomes for this group of potential students.

“I think that credit for prior learning, there’s so much evidence about the benefits, that it feels like a no-brainer for institutions,” she says. “Competency-based education is really exciting. It’s a very different way of thinking about teaching and learning than the traditional seat-time method. There’s a number of faculty who would love to think through this.”

Reaching out and connecting

The California Competes report highlights those who comprise this huge population within the state – the average age is 38 and more likely to be male and Latinx. Their median income is just under $27,000 and largely work in service or production roles. Their income and lack of upper-tier positions (if they are even employed), means they earn substantially less than those who have college degrees. They are more likely facing further challenges such as poverty and childcare needs.

“I think the data in many ways speaks for themselves,” Jez says. “It’s a huge population that has great needs. One thing [institutions can do is] to elevate that and to acknowledge that.”

“I’ve heard some wonder if graduates from extension programs count to degree attainment goals. That level of valuing older students needs to change – that cultural and mindset shift around who adult students are and how critical they are, how they’re not a risk for a university. These students count and are a regular part of the university.”

Jez said there are a number of ways colleges and universities can reach out to assist these populations and help them be a successful part of the community:

Institutional aid. “Lots of institutions have institutional aid. One thing they could do is evaluate whether how they are using it advances their goals. So, if an institution wants to enroll and complete more older students, is the aid going to a population they’re trying to support?

Aligning skills with jobs. Workers want to know that “I’m going to make more at the end of this. So we’re seeing the alignment around the role of higher ed and workforce development getting closer and closer together.”

Knowing the assets that are available. “What are the assets in my state, and how can I leverage those? In California, people that are receiving unemployment insurance could instead of spending that time unemployed looking for a job that frankly does not exist go back to higher ed and invest in building skills, so that when our economy comes back and there are jobs to be had, they’re ready.

Food assistance. “The latest COVID Relief Act has increased food assistance for students. Just making sure that students get everything that they are eligible for …  and that’s going to be different for older students than it is for 18-year-olds.”

Helping provide that help and those avenues to get potential students back in the classroom, contributing and making a difference, can be a win-win for so many stakeholders.

“it’s what needs to happen for underpaid Californians, for our economy, for employers,” she says. “ But I also think these changes will support everyone in higher ed. The more that higher ed can figure out how to deliver new models and new ways, all the better.”