Leading for Recovery: Prioritizing Adult Learners

Monday, December 21, 2020
Brett Visger
Senior Advisor

Millions of American workers have been displaced from their careers. People are urgently seeking solutions to re-enter the workforce and earn wages to sustain their families. The unprecedented number of job losses means that the U.S. is likely to see a significant influx of adult learners seeking education and training. Postsecondary institutions—community colleges in particular—need to be prepared to serve these adult students. This will mean offering high-quality accelerated programs that are responsive to the changing labor market and dramatically altering the models of delivery and support to address the needs of adult learners.

Equipping displaced adult workers with the skills they need for success in the new labor market will be a critical component of America’s economic recovery, and federal support can play a key role in accelerating progress. The incoming Biden administration should make adult reskilling a top priority and put a robust set of strategies in place to help communities re-engage adult learners. Below are four opportunities for strong leadership from the federal government.  

Provide targeted grants to build community college capacity for adult learners. Adult learners tend to take pragmatic approaches to pursuing postsecondary education and training; they want to be certain that their time and money will result in a good return on investment. Yet the vast majority of higher education is built around a model designed to serve traditionally-aged students. Additional resources are needed to set up adult-focused capacity across institutions and systems, which should become self-sustaining with increased adult enrollment and retention. 

The Biden administration can provide investments in capacity that support high-value, research-proven approaches such as navigators to support adult re-entry, high-quality accelerated programming, and clearer pathways from non-credit to credit programs.  Navigators support college transition for adult learners, becoming single-stop resources for adults beginning to navigate the systems from application to applying for financial aid and registering for classes. Additionally, creating accelerated programming allows displaced workers to obtain skills and credentials that will help them get back to work quickly. Community colleges can build accelerated programs that are informed by the labor market and lead to high-demand careers. Finally, community colleges can strengthen attainment by creating clear pathways from non-credit to credit-bearing programs. ESG’s research has found that a number of colleges and systems have undertaken the difficult work to promote alignment of industry-focused non-credit programs with credit programs that lead to degrees. Developing a federal grant program targeted at community colleges to build these sorts of student-focused capacities would help address the immediate needs of displaced workers. 

Provide guidance/permissibility to more effectively braid funding to support adult learners. Adult learners need support throughout their educational journey to address critical basic needs, such as paying for reskilling programs and housing and food insecurity. These needs will be greater as the future workforce will require new and elevated knowledge and skills as a prerequisite to entry or upward mobility in a new technology-driven economy. The federal government provides multiple programs to support retraining, but the disconnections across these programs reduces their impact. The federal government could create a more fluid process and compelling approach for states to create a combined application across the WIOA core programs (e.g., adult, youth, dislocated worker, vocational rehabilitation, adult literacy) and more state partner programs (e.g., Trade Adjustment, Perkins, TANF, and Veterans). A coherent state-wide strategic approach to education, training, workforce, and economic development would focus efforts, services, supports, and fiscal assets in a more impactful manner.

Offer flexibility with need-based Title IV student aid to serve targeted populations, especially adult learners. With the impending reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, there is an opportunity to revisit the ways in which independent student status within the federal methodology can inhibit the availability of Title IV aid for adults returning to school. The federal government should encourage greater flexibility in funds to serve DREAMers, current and formerly incarcerated individuals, veterans, and many other groups of individuals that face significant barriers to postsecondary access and success. For example, we applaud the likely expansion of Second Chance Pell Grants in Title IV in the stimulus to enable incarcerated individuals to access and complete meaningful postsecondary credentials that provide clear pathways into the workforce. We can’t stop there, however, and need to look at other opportunities to strategically leverage Pell Grants to improve outcomes for important populations.  

Invest in models that pair academic and career training to accelerate the path back to the workforce. Research consistently indicates that perceptions that learning can apply to future career goals results in improved academic success. By teaching academic concepts in a career context, all learners can see the pathway from their learning to the workplace. For instance, the new administration could leverage WIOA Title II funds to scale integrated basic education and training programs. Washington’s I-BEST model has demonstrated dramatic success in helping low-skill adults gain a GED and postsecondary credential in an accelerated fashion, helping lift many individuals out of poverty. 

If we are to accelerate an equitable economic recovery, we cannot focus attention solely on traditionally-aged college students. Adult learners must be a priority, and the incoming Biden administration has an opportunity to set the right tone and ensure that these students are well served and set up for success.