New Players are Emerging to Serve Returning Adult Learners—Federal Policy Needs to Reflect That.

2021 should be an eventful year for federal policy conversations related to postsecondary access and completion. However, much of the national discussion has centered on removing barriers to traditional higher education. Such approaches rarely account for the needs of the adult learners that are now the majority on college campuses or those learners of all ages pursuing programs of study outside of a traditional higher education setting — especially in the wake of a pandemic that displaced millions of workers. 

To better serve this population, we must first acknowledge the sweeping changes that are happening in the postsecondary education and workforce development landscape. We need to reshape federal policy to incentivize and support programs that can serve the new majority of students who are increasingly studying online or part-time or acquiring credentials across multiple providers while balancing their education with the demands of family, work, and community responsibilities. 

At a time when the needs of students and workers are shifting so dramatically, the compass is pointing us toward the need for a broader set of policy reforms to serve this population. Here are four strategic priorities for policymakers and advocates to consider.

Erase barriers to adult learner access and completion. Just last month, the House Education and Labor Committee passed its Build Back Better legislation that would provide two years of free community college for credit bearing courses and nearly $80 billion for the reskilling of millions of American workers who lost jobs as a result of the pandemic. The Committee also authorized $9 billion for a Retention and Completion Fund to help finance new investments in evidence-based student supports. These are welcome developments for the millions of degree and credential-seeking working adults looking to return to school but who face massive challenges when re-enrolling and completing higher education.  

There are more than 36 million U.S. adults with some college and no degree. A significant number of these students who return to finish what they started will never make it to the point of credit-bearing coursework, and will instead find themselves trapped in developmental education programs. Furthermore, an oversight report from the Government Accountability Office found that an estimated 43 percent of transferred credits were “lost” and ended up not counting toward a degree. We must make it far easier for students who once stopped out to re-enroll and hit the ground running. 

Rethink credit and pathways. Even if we were to erase the financial barriers to college access through policy and funding, there would be a significant number of Americans who would still be poorly served by our system of higher education as it exists today. Today’s students and workers need a more flexible and agile marketplace for learning and acquiring new skills and credentials.

Postsecondary education is moving in that direction thanks to an increasing focus on skills and credential attainment as seen through an expansion of digital credentials, multiple entry and exit points to learning, competency-based and accelerated learning platforms, and in-demand credentials, including stackable credentials, that are tied to labor market needs. And more and more adult learners are engaged in learning opportunities—formal, informal, and at work—that occur beyond the confines of a college campus, pursuing a much broader array of credentials than in years past. 

However we must do a better job of allowing those competencies and credentials to be captured through portable transcripts or “skills passports” that facilitate seamless transitions across learning and employment opportunities, documenting people’s skills and credentials in ways that are recognized by education institutions and employers alike, extending beyond our long-held assumptions about the nature of credit and degree attainment. 

Students are looking for the ability to weave in and out of learning in ways that current federal programs and policies never anticipated. It’s time policymakers refresh their understanding of educational pathways and recognize the many new entrants in the market working to better serve adult learners.

Finance shorter-term pathways and credentials. A year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, 8.6 million displaced workers are still struggling to find a job. The economic fallout of the virus has been felt especially hard among communities of color, with Black and Latino unemployment soaring and minority-owned businesses closing at historic rates. Education and training are necessary to help these workers get back to work, but for the millions of low-income workers who cannot spare two to four years of time or money, a traditional degree pathway can be too costly a path. 

Displaced workers need faster and more affordable ways to quickly re-skill and gain a new foothold in an economy that is still deeply damaged by the pandemic. Many workers are indeed starting to seek out these shorter-term programs so that they can return to work or reskill for roles in new industries. Unfortunately, the bulk of federal funding has been historically limited to postsecondary programs that meet very stringent requirements around seat time and quality assurance. There are a growing number of high-quality non-degree credentials that are not currently eligible for critical Title IV programs such as Pell Grants. 

As seen in the Education and Labor Committee’s Build Back Better bill, Federal policymakers should significantly increase funding for workforce development programs that provide just in time career navigation and skills training services for workers who need to transition to new careers. Policymakers should also expand Title IV eligibility so that adult learners can use public funds to enroll in and complete high-quality rapid reskilling programs. Policymakers should consider moving forward on proposals to expand eligibility through so-called “short-term Pell” or “workforce Pell” grants for working adults.

Create pathways to recognition and funding for new entrants. Within our current system of accreditation, it can be difficult for alternative providers—even those who show promising results in achieving the sort of workforce outcomes that adult learners need. As the universe of higher education pathways continues to expand, we must develop new guardrails and consumer protections. We should allow for innovation and ensure that these providers can gradually achieve greater access to federal funding and support, but only in exchange for demonstrating clear outcomes and results.

None of these changes will be easy or happen overnight. Certainly, there are steps within the proposed Build Back Better legislation that would move us in the right direction. But our increasingly dated policy infrastructure and funding streams must be updated and retooled to better serve the needs of a population of working adult learners. They must be better attuned to the needs of today’s economy and workforce. It will take bipartisan coalitions working together to find common ground and respond to the growing recognition that our current systems are vestiges of a bygone era. They must now partner to help create the new systems of post-secondary learning that workers and students so desperately need.