Today’s Students, Yesterday’s Financial Aid Policies

The need for postsecondary education is a hot topic in mainstream policy discussions. As the world becomes more globalized and our economy becomes increasingly knowledge based, the need for training beyond a high school diploma is increasingly important. States recognize this, and have placed a heavy emphasis on setting and achieving ambitious postsecondary attainment goals in response to their rapidly changing economies. Promise programs, free community college proposals and public awareness campaigns have grown in an attempt to tap deeper into the pipeline of high school students and change the culture and narrative around who goes to college. And, while these efforts are admirable, there are still some blind spots in these otherwise well-meaning state efforts. In particular, what about adult students?

Today, four out of 10 college students are older than 25. More and more, the traditional, campus-dwelling 18-22-year-old full-time student at a four-year institution is becoming the “old normal,” as the “new normal” of college students grows increasingly diverse. Once considered nontraditional, today’s students are juggling work, family and academic responsibilities. They are more ethnically and economically diverse. And most noticeably, they are older. Consequently, support for these students – financial and otherwise – will also look a bit different. Which begs the question, are state financial aid policies really responding to these populations?

Both Education Commission of the States  and the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) have been examining this question for the last two years, and the answer is complicated, as is the context. Every state looks different in terms of resources, needs and political climate. However, across just about all states, we consistently found a gap in the accessibility of state financial aid programs for adult students. Based on the diversity of enrollment patterns, needs and demographics of today’s students, the largest state grant programs are not always serving the growing diversity of students. Twenty-nine of the largest state aid programs will only fund full-time students, and 33 are strictly merit-based. Additionally, a handful of states limit eligibility for state grants based on a small window of time since high school completion, virtually disqualifying adult students solely based on age.

Nonetheless, there are cases of success that we can all learn from. A number of states have made intentional efforts to respond to the vastly changing needs of nontraditional students. States like Indiana have built public awareness campaigns and specified targeted grant aid opportunities for adults in response to the changing demands of the economy and the growing needs of students, and states like Minnesota have continuously evolved their state aid programs to become more accessible to students from all walks of life.

On Jan. 26 at 1 p.m. ET, representatives from both states will highlight these examples in a webinar led by Education Commission of the States and CLASP to help build awareness, offer guidance, and encourage peer learning among states around state financial aid and adult students. By building a community around these issues, we hope to change the narrative and inform policy around adult students. By serving all students, states are better positioned to meet their workforce goals while extending opportunities to those who need them most.

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