Supporting Adult Learners for Economic Recovery

Thursday, October 14, 2021
Brett Visger
Senior Advisor

As the United States recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, addressing talent shortages and reskilling needs is more urgent than ever. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,  nearly 8.4 million Americans are still out of work as of August 2021.  Simultaneously, evidence is beginning to emerge that the country is experiencing  the “great resignation,” where significant numbers of workers are either quitting jobs or refusing to return.  Meanwhile, current projections from the BLS maintain that those without a postsecondary credential will have a hard time obtaining employment in the future due to little or even negative job growth in occupations not requiring postsecondary credentials. If this reality was not apparent prior to the pandemic, current labor market data clearly signals that a postsecondary credential is a must-have currency in the post-COVID environment. Higher education institutions have an opportunity to be the linchpin for a robust recovery, helping upskill and reskill those laid off during the pandemic, particularly adult learners (or post-traditional learners).

For the long-term health of many institutions – especially community colleges and regional universities – there will be greater need to increase enrollment and retention of post-traditional students.  Moreover, significant one-time resources from the stimulus can be strategically leveraged to help this important population. To help respond to this crisis, Education Strategy Group is pleased to be part of two different – yet complementary – efforts to address these challenges and improve the outcomes of adult learners. 

 The Accelerating Recovery through Credentials (ARC) initiative – funded by Ascendium and Kresge Foundations – developed two resources to improve adult learner outcomes. The Rapid Response Toolkit helps institutions quickly stand up reskilling and upskilling efforts and the Adult-Ready Playbook will help states and institutions using continuous improvement to shift systems to be more responsive to post-traditional learners.  Specifically, the Adult-Ready Playbook offers a new framework with five priority areas (accessibility, program change, operational change, data, and partnerships) and practical solutions with examples to comprehensively build towards more adult-friendly systems.  Adopting such student-focused strategies articulated in the Playbook will also have benefits for all learners.  In the coming months, ESG intends to partner with a set of leading institutions to use the resources of the ARC initiative to grow and accelerate strategies for serving adult learners. 

The Racial Equity for Adult Credentials in Higher Education (REACH) initiative takes a more targeted strategy that strives to improve credential attainment for adult learners of color at community colleges in six states (CA, CO, NC, NY, TX, and VA). With funding support from Lumina Foundation, ESG is partnering with University of Illinois’ Office of Community College Research and Leadership (OCCRL) to support state-level efforts to work with community colleges to reshape offerings to be more responsive to the needs of adult learners of color. This includes incorporating non-degree credentials into the sequencing of degrees, purposeful bundling of student support strategies to ensure critical needs are being met, as well as building culturally sustaining approaches that build capacity.  Overall, the goal of reach is to see a two percent increase in credential attainment for Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous learners over age 25 at participating community colleges in the target states.  

The Adult Ready Playbook promotes continuous improvement building to systemic shifts, while REACH will move the needle through targeted change strategies. Both ARC and REACH will help build the knowledge and capacity of higher education in working with post-traditional learners in different ways.  There is an urgency to embrace these efforts to respond to the current crises.  It is increasingly important that state and institutional leaders prioritize student success strategies as a central component of their COVID-19 recovery efforts and use the federal stimulus to support innovative practices that encourage an increase in persistence and completion rates, especially for post-traditional students. Through bold action and sound investment, community college and regional university leaders have an opportunity to address post-traditional learner needs in higher education, as well as some of the economy’s greatest challenges.