The 5 strategies that can empower adult learners

A California Competes report notes huge opportunities to close workforce gaps for those 24 and over and how higher education institutions can help meet those goals.
By: | May 11, 2021
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The problem: In order to fill its workforce over the next two years, California’s employers need two million more college graduates and students with certificates.

The solution: There are five million-plus residents over age 24 who say they will be seeking postsecondary education.

Problem solved, right? Not necessarily, say leaders at California Competes, the nonprofit that does deep research in trying to improve access and outcomes in higher education within the state.

In its latest report, Get Ready: Introducing the Millions of Adults Planning to Enroll in College, California Competes proposes that unless those students are given the proper pathways and support to new education opportunities that meets those jobs of tomorrow, the gaps will continue.

“It is imperative that California institutions use this data to meet adult degree-seekers where they are; otherwise, they will neither enroll, nor persist with their education,” said Dr. Su Jin Gatlin Jez, Executive Director. “What the COVID-19 pandemic taught us is that we can no longer proceed in a ‘business as usual’ manner.”

Where they are – or where they will be – is online. California Competes says 4 million people, or roughly 15% of all adults, are interested in education that is fully virtual. And that number spikes for both women and those under 55.

“Students depend on their institutions to be much more than a venue for delivering lectures and taking exams, as demonstrated during the massive interruption of higher education in the spring of 2020,” authors note in the report. “To the extent that institutions can improve online services that approximate these noninstructional aspects of being physically present on campus, they will enhance the experience of remote learners and broaden the appeal to prospective students wary of missing out on these supports and experiences.”

Inside the numbers

Though the study is California-specific, there are interesting numbers that could mirror some trends across the nation among different subgroups.

  • For example, 22% of women expressed a desire to continue their education compared with 16% of men.
  • The age group with the most interest is 25-34 year-olds at more than 35%, but it declines sharply from there, with 35-44 year-olds at less than 25%.
  • Those who make less income (except for those earning less than $35,000) want more desperately to improve their outcomes through postsecondary education. Those who earn between $35,000–$49,999 are more likely to enroll (60%) than those in the $50,000-$74,900 bracket. Almost none of those who made $75,000 or more would consider enrolling in a new program.

One stat that may be unique to California – Latinx adults comprised the largest share of those who saif they will seek more education (33%). By contrast, only 6% of Whites and 11% of Blacks, said they would.

In order to ensure that students succeed and gaps are closed, California Competes outlined a series of recommendations in its report. Aside from targeting policymakers with guidance such as improving broadband access and employers with improving pathways for students through internships and apprenticeships, it offered a number of ideas for colleges and universities:

  1. Giving credit where credit is due. Those students who already have some postsecondary education experience or other credit should be allowed to utilize that to get to completion, while being welcomed back to college and universities with incentives such as “shorter terms and more frequent start dates.”
  2. Many institutions pivoted well to online learning during the pandemic. It may be time to make that a permanent reality for adult learners, who have little flexibility and time in their schedules, often working full-time jobs, to gain access to education.
  3. Honing the delivery of online courses and ensuring that the quality of instruction meets those that in person through technology improvements and professional development. California Competes notes the success of the state’s community colleges with completion rates in online courses nearing those of in-person.
  4. Increasing academic support and other services such as health care and library options for older students.
  5. Marketing programs more clearly. For example, California Competes says many men in the state believe they need to attend a vocational school or technical school for specific training and not community colleges, when in fact much of what can be learned is offered by community colleges.