Accelerate Recovery: Prepare Colleges to Serve Out-of-Work Adults

Friday, May 1, 2020
Brett Visger
Senior Advisor

The ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in the loss of millions of jobs. Though some of these job losses are temporary, others will be permanent. As they look for ways to return to work, many newly-unemployed individuals will decide to boost their employability through additional postsecondary education and training. It will be imperative that states and institutions are ready to support these adult learners — along with traditional college students — in successful completion of a postsecondary degree or credential of value.

Many states have set postsecondary attainment goals, but bare-bones budgets and scarce resources mean that commitment to these goals will be put to the test — at a time when having a skilled workforce is critical to economic recovery. Given the increased importance of postsecondary credentials in a recovery, states and communities that have set attainment goals should keep their foot on the gas and accelerate efforts to align credentials with the changing labor market. Now is not the time to put postsecondary attainment on the back burner. Instead, we must reorient our efforts to be attentive to the immediate credentialing needs of displaced youth and adults while maintaining a long-term commitment to advancing overall attainment and closing equity gaps.

Although it remains unclear exactly how the COVID-19 health crisis will impact college enrollment this fall, it is a pretty sure bet that a sizable number of newly-unemployed individuals will eventually choose to return to postsecondary education to upskill. Recent surveys by the Strada Education Network find that over one-third of people surveyed believe they will need to return to school for reskilling if they lose their job. With such unprecedented numbers of job losses, we will see a significant influx of adult learners seeking education and training. While the timing of that enrollment surge may be challenging to predict, postsecondary institutions—community colleges in particular—need to be prepared to serve adult students.

Traditionally, higher education has operated around a model of credentials that are an aggregation of separate courses taught across a semester system. Programs may vary, but they are built around the same credit hour structures, timing of semesters, and fitting into administrative models. The crisis presents an opportunity for states and institutions to think differently about approaches and models of high-quality credentials.

Adult learners 25 and older currently make up 37% of all undergraduate enrollments, and those numbers are likely to significantly increase through the COVID-19 crisis. With potentially millions looking to upskill in a recession and recovery, it is counterproductive to insist that they fit into the model that was built to serve full-time students transitioning directly from high school. Innovative programs that address adult learner needs exist, but typically serve small numbers of students. To address the influx of people looking to be reskilled – and to address equity gaps – we should take this as an opportunity to think about putting student needs at the center rather than adhering to models borne of tradition and administrative convenience — and to implement these improvements at scale.

To serve returning adult learners effectively, higher education institutions (and the systems that support them) must ensure that accelerated approaches can help people obtain skills quickly while resulting in quality credentials with salience in the labor market. Below, I outline four recommendations for effectively supporting these individuals toward successful postsecondary credential attainment for greater economic opportunity.

Leverage CARES Act and other federal resources to focus on adult learners.

Although this is an extraordinarily challenging financial period for higher education institutions, there is an influx of emergency federal funding that can be strategically deployed to support more adults in their efforts to gain new credentials and find new jobs. Maine’s governor signed an executive order to leverage the state’s job training funds deployed through Maine Community College’s Maine Quality Centers to increase access to free, online career training to workers displaced by COVID-19. In Hawaii, the Reducing Unemployment Disruption Driving Economic Regeneration (RUDDER) program aims to align federal workforce programs, such as Disaster Recovery grants, to efficiently train and transfer workers from hardest hit sectors (like hospitality) into essential sectors (like healthcare). More examples are in the works and can be shared soon as states finalize their CARES Act plans and submit to the federal government.

Build pathways that stack credentials while recognizing existing skills.

We know that relying on labor market data to surface high-demand sectors and stand up programs quickly will be key to recovery. This might mean initially offering programs to focus only on skill-based workforce credentials, but it is also critical to ensure that all programs have pathways that leverage learning into credit-bearing degree programs. My home state of Ohio, for example, offers the statewide One Year Option for students who have successfully completed non-credit, non-degree credentials to obtain a certification to earn a block of technical credit toward an Associates of Technical Studies degree. In addition, institutions and systems should also build purposeful processes like South Central College in Minnesota’s Credit for Prior Learning Wizard, which reviews whether an adult student is eligible for credit for prior learning to help shorten the path.

Offer accelerated programming.

Compressing non-degree and degree programs into accelerated timeframes can help people reconnect more quickly with the labor market. Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, for example, is offering a 15-month Associate Degree program in over a dozen fields. The flexibility offered by a shorter degree program will be appealing to the many individuals looking to get back to work as quickly as possible. There are more strategies that institutions can use to accelerate time to degree than I can fully describe in this post; I plan to dive more deeply into this topic in a future Accelerate Recovery blog post.

Provide transition supports for adults.

Just as college transition support is essential for recent high school graduates, adult students benefit from guidance and resources around the process of returning to higher education. Adults tend to be very pragmatic when they return for postsecondary learning. Prior to enrolling, they generally seek clear answers to three questions:

– What will it cost me?

– How can I make it fit in my busy life and needs?

– What is my return on investment?

In addition, many need help selecting programs and often feel insecurity about navigating the processes. States, support organizations, and institutions themselves should prepare and bolster resources for this specific population of students.

In the COVID-19 environment, support is particularly key. Several states — including Maine and Minnesota — have developed in-person and virtual navigator supports for adults entering postsecondary institutions. These become single-stop resources for adults beginning to navigate the systems from application to applying for financial aid and registering for classes. Similarly, Colorado has developed, a comprehensive website that addresses basic needs, skill training, and jobs all in one place. While it is a statewide resource, results are customized to provide localized responses to individuals. Third-party organizations can be also essential in filling potential adult transition gaps. The Graduate! Network is a regional, community-based model that provides outreach and support for adults to return and complete college.

As the recovery unfolds and the requirements of the workforce evolve, we can undoubtedly expect an influx of adults looking to return to higher education to upskill in hopes of securing a better career path. With quick action and willingness to innovate, community colleges, technical centers, and regional universities can become hubs to manage career transitions and support more individuals to attain meaningful postsecondary credentials. States and institutions should prioritize standing up approaches that clearly address adult concerns — and should do so with a sense of urgency.