Many black adults in educational limbo—some college credit, but no degree

By Carla Rivera

Earning a college degree has eluded Ida Marie Briggs for nearly 40 years.

Growing up the eldest of seven in a poor New Jersey household, she wasn’t able to accept a scholarship at a local university because of family responsibilities. Out on her own, she went to work, relocated to California and raised two children.

There were fits and starts over the decades: She enrolled in community college, attended a fashion and design school, and a San Fernando Valley business college that lost accreditation and cost Briggs time and money.

Her experience mirrors that of a population beginning to receive more attention from academic experts and colleges themselves: African Americans who have some college training but never made it to graduation. Their challenges are important because many would likely fill higher-wage jobs if they attained a degree.

In California and around the nation, campus-based programs have sprung up to coax many of these adults to re-enter college. These efforts, however, face a number of hurdles, including a lack of awareness that a degree may be within reach, limited financial resources and inadequate outreach and support services, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Campaign for College Opportunity.

About a third of black adults in California — 385,250 — have some college education but no degree, the highest rate of any racial or ethnic group, according to the report. Overall, about 4.5 million California adults never completed their studies.

There is no statewide strategy to help those who want to return to school, nor adequate funding for programs, said Michele Siqueiros, president of the advocacy group.

“The numbers are pretty stunning,” Siqueiros said. “We should be incentivizing adults interested in finishing and earning those degrees to come back. Not all will, but this is low-hanging fruit. Growing capacity, though, is going to require additional funding from the state.”

Under budget proposals by Gov. Jerry Brown, state funding for the University of California, Cal State and community colleges has increased this year. The 2015-16 plan calls for the three higher education systems to ease transfer policies, boost basic skills instruction and improve graduation rates—particularly for low-income and minority students.

Many of those goals may help re-entry students, but no specific funds are targeted to that group. And both UC and Cal State officials have complained that the budget plan doesn’t provide funding needed to increase enrollment.

The problems are not confined to California.

Nationally, enrollment of older, nontraditional students (adults 25 and over) is expected to grow more than twice as fast as for younger students in coming years, according to a recent report by the Center for Law and Social Policy.

But many financial aid and transfer policies are not keeping pace. A survey of the nation’s largest state-funded financial aid programs by the Education Commission of the States found that 33 of them link eligibility to the SAT and other college entrance exams, high school GPAs or other measures geared toward recent graduates. Many programs fund only full-time students, leaving out adults who may need to attend part time.

In California, the availability of Cal Grants dips steeply for students who don’t apply within a year of graduating from high school, according to the Institute for College Access & Success.

Additionally, many colleges and universities may not accept credits previously earned at other institutions, through online programs or for military training or work experience and may require students to take pre-college courses. Such policies could have a disproportionate impact on African Americans, who typically are heavily recruited by for-profit institutions and may end up with huge debt.

Many experts believe that the role of adult re-entry students may loom large in efforts to substantially increase the ranks of degree holders needed to bolster the nation’s workforce and economy, an agenda being pressed by President Obama and nonprofit organizations such as the Lumina Foundation.

“Unfortunately, this group is not at the top of anybody’s priority,” said Christina Sedney, project coordinator for the Adult College Completion Network.

Some states, such as Georgia and Texas, are moving to coordinate re-entry programs with flexible schedules and scholarship opportunities involving several participating universities. California’s public colleges and universities need to move equally aggressively, said Hans Johnson, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.

“We need to think of ways to make coming back as efficient as possible for nontraditional students,” Johnson said. “Both UC and CSU are increasingly offering more online courses, and that will help. All of these are incremental changes but incremental changes in the right direction and necessary to help close some of those gaps.”

A program at UC Berkeley includes a course that helps re-entering students connect with each other. Many are low-income, underrepresented students who’ve had little experience at a competitive research-oriented institution such as Cal, said Ron Williams, director of Re-entry Student and Veteran Services at the campus.

Their life experiences and maturity may even be a “selling point” in the competitive admissions process, he said, adding that “it does set them apart from other applicants.”

Cal State Long Beach is actively recruiting African Americans to complete their degrees, with counseling, academic support and help with financial aid, said Bruce Vancil, assistant director for transfer and re-entry services.

Briggs attended a recent luncheon meeting of the African American initiative in Long Beach, which landed her in Vancil’s office to determine her prospects and whether her previous credits can be transferred.

At 58, she hopes to enroll at the Long Beach campus in the fall, determined to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Being unable to complete her education after high school had always been a big regret, Briggs said.

“Now I understand that I got accepted once and can get accepted again,” she said.

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