College Affordability, State Aid, and Adult Students

By Wayne Taliaferro

The eroding purchasing power of federal grant aid, declining state support for institutions, and growing diversity of today’s students have made postsecondary access and success a challenge for many students. Despite some reports of rebounding state fiscal support for higher education, support is still below pre-recession levels in 46 states. The cost burden has created the most rapidly growing student debt levels in history. For students from low-income backgrounds, the pain of this cost burden is felt the hardest. And for low-income adult students, who make up almost half of all adult postsecondary students, the burden is even more troublesome. However, where other resources fall short, state financial aid programs present an opportunity to act as a source for meeting student need.

State financial aid programs provide $11.7 billion in aid annually. In some states, grant aid is extremely generous and inclusive, but these qualities are not reflective in state programs across the board. In some states, this is a result of resource constraints and inn others, the result of narrow understandings of student demographics and needs. Nonetheless, an unintended consequence is usually the exclusion or reduction of state financial aid opportunities for adult students. For example, in Georgia, the HOPE scholarship is unavailable to students once they have been out of high school for seven years. In Michigan, the state’s primary grant programs are only available to students who have graduated from high school within the last 10 years. In California, where Cal Grants are relatively generous, they are only guaranteed to students enrolling in college within a year of high school graduation who meet merit and income requirements, or for students transferring from a community college to a four-year institution before age 28. In addition, in some states, aid opportunities become scarcer depending on program, enrollment pattern or institution type. For students in community and technical colleges, state financial aid may have even lower purchasing power considering the high levels of unmet need and expense burdens among the students that attend.

These challenges are not a condemnation of the programming in these states, nor are they unique examples. In fact, in Georgia adult students are a recognizable priority population within the state, but unfortunately the state’s financial aid policies just have not caught up. Nonetheless, many states are taking steps to fix this disconnect. For instance, in New York, Assembly Bill 970 was introduced to establish an adult student grant for adults returning to college or seeking career education and training. In Idaho, House Bill 190 was introduced to provide funding for an adult postsecondary completion scholarship. And in California, the most comprehensive debt-free college plan was recently put forth by the state’s lawmakers to cover the full cost of attendance, including living expenses, for Californians.

Still, there are a number of accessibility challenges among state financial aid programs that simply impede opportunities for adult students. Considering the plateauing of the high school graduate pipeline, the skill demands of the current and future economy, and state credential attainment and workforce goals, it is in the best interests of states to prioritize postsecondary affordability and access for all residents. As policymakers continue to debate these issues, it is critical that adult students are a serious part of the conversation. 

This post was originally featured on the Ed Note Blog of the Education Commission of the States.