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In Focus

Oct 9, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

New Study on Postsecondary Outcomes for Returning Adult Students

By Katherine Saunders

On Tuesday, the American Council on Education, InsideTrack, NASPA, UPCEA, and the National Student Clearinghouse released a joint study highlighting the persistence and completion patterns of non-first-time college students, a group about which we know very little because of their absence from major federal postsecondary databases.

Adult students make up a growing portion of today’s undergraduate students. Forty-four percent of undergraduate students are age 25 or older and 51 percent are independent for the purpose of determining eligibility for financial aid. Unlike “traditional” students who attend a four-year institution directly after high school, adults students often exhibit less traditional enrollment patterns, with some having delayed enrollment, others having dropped out or stopped out of college after accumulating credits but not completing a degree, and others mix full- and part-time enrollment while trying to balance work, family, and school.

The new joint study breaks down college completion disparities of returning adult students by institution type and state. Researchers found that just under 34 percent of adult non-first-time (NFT) students completed their degree after 6 to 8 years, compared to 54 percent of first-time students. At public two-year institutions, where a majority of low-income adult returning students enroll, the completion rate for NFT students was 26 percent lower than full-time students.

Additionally, the data reveal that some states are doing a better job graduating returning adult students than other states. For instance, large states like California and Texas have dismal completion rates (24 and 38 percent, respectively) whereas smaller states like Delaware and the District of Columbia have the highest completion rates for NFT students (51 and 57 percent, respectively). It is not clear, however, what strategies lead to better student outcomes between states.

Adult returning students often balance multiple responsibilities such as class work, jobs, and family obligations. Forty-one percent work more than 20 hours per week and 26 percent are parents. To manage these multiple responsibilities, adult students require more flexible schedules and mix part-time and full-time enrollment over the course of their academic program. Despite these challenges, findings from this new study show that returning students with mixed enrollment actually complete at higher rates than their first-time mixed enrollment peers. This supports the continuing need for financial aid and other policies that support mixed enrollment. Although the federal Pell Grant supports part-time attendance, many state-level financial aid programs are limited to students who enroll full-time, limiting the financial resources available to returning adult students.

At a time where policy makers and leaders are working to increase college completion rates for adults, it is imperative for federal and state level grant programs to support part-time enrollment, including when students attend less than half-time. Financial aid should be designed to meet the cost of college and flexible enough to meet the needs of returning adult students. In the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, CLASP recommends that Congress preserve financial aid for students who attend a mix of part and full-time enrollment while in school in order to support the Nation’s college completion goals and help more low-income, working adult students earn postsecondary credentials to advance in the workforce.

This study brings to the forefront concerns with how effectively our postsecondary institutions are addressing the needs of the growing population of returning adult students. While financial aid is critical, it is only part of the solution. Innovations such as connecting students to public benefits, developing career pathways to good jobs, and instituting competency-based approaches should be more commonly  implemented at scale to support returning adult students. Employer demand for workers with some postsecondary education is expected to remain high; by 2020, nearly 65 percent of jobs will require some postsecondary education. We must ensure we’re doing everything we can to advance college completion goals and help more low-income, working adult students earn postsecondary credentials to advance in the workforce.

Oct 2, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

OCTAE Provides a “One-Stop” Shop for Career Pathways Resources

By Manuela Ekowo

The career pathways movement continues to gain steam, thanks to the enactment of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and several other efforts highlighted in the U.S Departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services’ recent National Dialogue on Career Pathways. States are looking for ways to best implement the new law, strengthen career pathways, and build career pathway systems to meet the needs of their communities and local economies.

As the career pathway approach starts to become codified in federal law, it is important to have a common understanding of quality career pathways and systems, such as the shared vision proposed by the Alliance for Quality Career Pathways (AQCP). In addition, practitioners, policymakers, administrators, funders, and others can benefit from the numerous valuable resources that have been created to help them develop career pathways. The Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE) in the U.S. Department of Education launched a new initiative earlier this year to do just that.

OCTAE’s Moving Pathways Forward: Supporting Career Pathways Integration will assist states in advancing career pathways systems to transition low-skilled adults to postsecondary education and employment. In October, this initiative will launch the Career Pathways Exchange, which will consolidate and distribute career pathways-related tools, events, and information from federal and state agencies and partner organizations. CLASP will contribute to the Career Pathways Exchange by sharing our relevant resources with new audiences through the Exchange’s network.

Members of the Exchange can select to receive updates on topics of interest which include: building cross-agency partnerships; identifying industry sectors and engaging employers; designing education and training programs; identifying funding needs and sources; aligning policies and programs; and measuring system change and performance. We encourage those working to strengthen and improve career pathways and systems and looking for a central hub of resources for this work to join the Exchange.   

The Alliance framework, Shared Vision, Strong Systems, jointly developed by CLASP and ten leading career pathway states and their local/regional partners, is one of many resources featured in the Exchange. The framework provides a clear set of criteria and indicators for what constitutes a quality state and local/regional career pathway system as well as metrics to assess participant progress and success, all of which mirror the Exchange’s key interest topics listed above. Phase II of the Alliance, which launched this Fall, will focus on implementing the framework and sharing lessons with the field.

We believe the Exchange will be a useful tool for states and local programs as it will streamline information across multiple outlets, providing members with ongoing updates on available resources and upcoming events to facilitate a deeper national dialogue on career pathways systems development and implementation. In addition, resources and information distributed through the Exchange are vetted and released based on their relevance to members, ensuring the offerings are tailored to the task at hand: to provide relevant education and training to disadvantaged populations, youth and adults alike, that will enable them to be successful in today’s economy.

For more information about CLASP’s participation in this nationwide federal initiative, please contact CLASP’s AQCP staff and sign up for updates on the Alliance. In addition, we encourage you to follow the Exchange on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest to stay current on career pathways events and resources, as well as adult education and WIOA updates.

Sep 26, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

Student Voices: Competency-Based Education Key to Improving College Completion and Career Advancement for Adult Students

By Katherine Saunders

This is the final installment of our Student Voices series, which features a new student story every week in September. These powerful testimonials from actual students speak to the need for a comprehensive reform of the Higher Education Act that provides greater supports and well-structured financial aid to meet the changing needs of today’s students.

Today, postsecondary education and credentials are critical to economic mobility. A growing number of “non-traditional” adult students are returning to institutions of higher education to obtain the education and credentials necessary to compete in today’s workforce and obtain a job with sustainable wages to support themselves and their families. Fifty-one percent of undergraduate students are independent, 44 percent are adults age 25 or older, 26 percent are parents, and 41 percent work more than 20 hours per week. In today’s labor market with employers requiring workers to hold skills and credentials, non-traditional students bring with them a significant work and life experiences. These competencies could give them a head start in a degree or certificate program.

Dustin[1], a 38-year-old father of four, graduated from high school and worked as an electrician and equipment operator until he worked his way up to an operations manager at a third-party logistics company. He left his job to move his family so his wife could pursue her education. Despite previous accomplishments in his industry, Dustin was unable to find a comparable position because he did not have a college education. “I’ve been through training,” Dustin explained, “but none of it counts because it doesn’t have a paper behind it.” Dustin enrolled in the Madison Area Technical College’s Liberal Arts Transfer Program as preparation for transferring to Business School at UW-Madison with the goal of working in the corporate sector. “I love this work,” he said. “The only thing holding me back is college.”

Dustin’s attempt to reenter the workforce highlights the plight of many returning adult students. While he had the training and work experience, his lack of a college degree hindered his career progression. Using a competency-based education (CBE) approach could be the most beneficial for Dustin and other adult students who have work experience and training, but no degree. CBE recognizes the prior learning and experience of adult learners and gives them the opportunity to apply their experiences to course work and accelerate toward degree completion and reentry into the workforce. 

CBE measures learning, not seat time, and students progress along their educational pathway by demonstrating their competency (knowledge and skills). Focusing on learning rather than time spent in a classroom can save them valuable time and money, and it makes it easier for students managing work and family responsibilities to learn on their own time and in a place of their choosing.

Similarly, Marie[2], a 40-year-old single mother, would benefit from a CBE approach. Marie worked for 14 years in the office of a large business before her daughter began having significant health problems. After excessive absences due to her daughter’s health, she was eventually dismissed from her job. When she began applying for a new job, Marie discovered she did not have the current computer skills needed to compete for the positions she wanted, so she went back to school. She is currently completing the Business Software Application Specialists Program with the simple goal of “getting a good-paying job with benefits.” As a single mom, she’d like to be able to take care of her daughter without constantly struggling. A CBE model would allow Marie to earn her credentials at her own pace, in her own home, and give her the time to take care of her daughter.

CBE has been recognized by policymakers and key stakeholders in higher education, including the US Department of Education. CLASP senior fellow Evelyn Ganzglass highlights in a brief the federal competency-based education experiments issued by the Department of Education to test three CBE approaches (prior learning assessment, competency-based education, and limited direct assessment) to improve student outcomes. CLASP commends the Department of Education for funding opportunities for CBE experiments and encourages postsecondary institutions to take advantage of the opportunity to increase college completion and career advancement among the growing number of adult students.


[1] The name of the student interviewed has been changed to ensure confidentiality.

[2] The name of the student interviewed has been changed to ensure confidentiality.

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