Ideas from the Field: Leveraging Stimulus Funds to Support Adult Learners

Wednesday, June 16, 2021
Kelly Van Beveren
Associate Director

As employers ramp up hiring, higher education institutions have a unique opportunity to help drive the economic recovery by scaling programs that prepare students for good jobs. This is particularly important for displaced workers looking to upskill. With significant new federal stimulus funding flowing to institutions, and new guidance that allows those funds, including student aid dollars, to support adult learners in short-term programs, colleges have a unique opportunity to accelerate their work. 

ESG, ACCT, and SHEEO recently co-hosted a webinar highlighting innovative institutional and state policies and practices to better target and support adult learners looking to reskill or enrolling in higher education for the first time. Kerry Ebersole, director of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity’s Office of Sixty by 30; Sue Ellspermann, President of Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana; and Gregory Haile, President of Broward College in Florida discussed ideas for higher education leaders to consider in using their American Rescue Plan funds to support learners over the age of 25. 

A full recording of the webinar is available below, along with written highlights from the conversation. 

How our panelists are innovating on behalf of adult learners

  • Ivy Tech Community College: As part of Indians’s statewide Rapid Recovery effort, Ivy Tech Community College launched Taking Hoosiers to the Next Level last summer, which provided opportunities for adults to earn free short-term credentials in high-demand fields. In a matter of four weeks, Ivy Tech used CARES Act funds to stand up thousands of open slots across 19 campuses to enable individuals impacted by the pandemic to pursue 20+ short-term credentials; 10,000 individuals applied and 2,700 enrolled last fall, with an additional 1,000 students enrolling this spring. 
  • Broward College: In 2018, Broward College launched an innovative new program called Broward UP, which stands for Unlimited Potential. The program recognizes that educational attainment and unemployment both look very different in the lower-income neighborhoods of Broward County, and makes a concerted effort to recruit residents from those zip codes to attend community college and bring the programs right to them in their neighborhoods. Broward UP has served 2,600 students through free short-term credential opportunities embedded in local communities (through partnerships with libraries, community organizations, and more) to bring high-payoff programming directly to adults who can most benefit from them. 
  • Michigan’s Futures for Frontliners: After launching Michigan Reconnect, modeled after the Tennessee Reconnect initiative, Gov. Whitmer of Michigan launched the Futures for Frontliners program in September 2020 in an effort to specifically serve frontline workers impacted by the pandemic. The program used CARES Act funds to offer tuition-free opportunities at community colleges for essential workers. By December, the program had received 120,000 applications and to date, more than 15,000 individuals have enrolled in their local community colleges with support from the initiative. 

Leveraging the American Rescue Plan (ARP) resources 

  • All three leaders see enormous potential in leveraging the nearly $40 billion in new federal stimulus resources that higher education institutions are receiving to advance strategies for serving adult learners. They stressed the need to be innovative with those funds and reminded the audience that institutional leaders will have the flexibility to invest those funds in ways that meet their local needs. 
  • Early indications are that the U.S. Department of Education is encouraging innovative use of the funds and has been supportive of the approaches these institutions have already taken through their existing adult learner focused economic recovery initiatives.    
  • Whereas CARES Act funds flowed through the state and governors exercised leadership in directing the funds toward strategic priorities such as adult learners, the ARP funds flow directly to institutions. This places greater responsibility in the hands of college presidents and trustees to create a vision for investing in strategies and programs that can support adult learners at scale. 

Ensuring quality and equity

  • Quality and value must be drivers of short-term programs. With thousands of short-term credentials available in the marketplace, return on investment must be prioritized. 
  • Equity must be front and center in investment decisions. We know that women and people of color have been hardest hit by the pandemic; reaching and serving these individuals should be a top institutional priority.  And ensuring they are entering programs that lead to high-quality credentials that open doors to well-paying jobs is critical.
  • Institutional leaders need to keep thinking about accessibility for these learners. Though removing the tuition barrier is important, there are many other factors that significantly impact adult learners’ ability to enroll and persist in higher education. Investing in wraparound supports (including child care, transportation support, and more) and alternative means of delivery (increasing the availability of virtual and community-embedded options) increases the likelihood of recruiting and supporting more adult learners to success. 
  • Creative leveraging of community partners is another way to consider investing in adult learners’ long-term success. Broward College is developing a way to enable trusted community partners to serve as job placement agents for learners. By giving these partners a financial incentive to place graduates into jobs within the community, the mission and responsibility of facilitating upward economic mobility becomes shared by institutions and the community. 
  • Small expenses can be major deterrents for adult learners who are already juggling many competing priorities. Ivy Tech is looking to expand its use of stimulus funding to reduce or eliminate costs associated with student purchasing of course materials. Recognizing that a quarter of its students cannot afford course materials, an initial CARES Act investment in reducing the course material cost burden resulted in a 2 percent increase in course pass rates at the institution. 

Sustainability considerations

  • Keep in mind that HEERF funds can be used for lost revenue recovery; when used in this way, those funds have complete flexibility. This has enabled institutional leaders to think about creating longevity with those funds. 
  • Consider which initiatives or programs can be launched or scaled with a significant capital investment up front, allowing stimulus funds to be spent in the required timeframe, and then looking at building the ongoing maintenance costs for those programs or initiatives into traditional operating expenditures. Be sure to have an understanding of the ongoing maintenance costs prior to making the initial up-front capital investment. 
  • Consider avoiding investment in new positions; ongoing costs associated with new positions could be difficult to maintain in the long term. 
  • These funds provide an opportunity for higher education leaders to demonstrate the value of their ideas, thereby opening up additional funding sources for the future. For example, institutions like Ivy Tech had already been working toward an inclusive tuition model prior to the pandemic; this new infusion of federal funds allows them to fund this idea for two years and develop a two-year track record of the payoff and return on investment to support future funding from other sources.