It was a hot topic at our annual Talent Hub and Community Network Convening. Most of our community partnerships focus on improving post-high school attainment among adults, but nearly all the cities we work with struggle with what to call those adults: nontraditional students, come-backers, returning adults, adult students, even “post-traditional students,” at which everyone just laughed.

But it was my colleague and friend Jimmieka Mills, herself an adult student, who said something that quieted the room: “How about you just call us students? We don’t want to be different, or set apart, or treated differently. We just want to learn and graduate.”

She’s right, of course. The only reason adult students need to be called anything at all is that many colleges and universities develop and sustain systems designed for 18-year-olds. Anyone who doesn’t fit that mold—just out of high school, living on campus, enrolled full time—is, by his or her very existence, different and often, devalued.

By 2025, Lumina Foundation calculates that nearly 11.6 million adults will need to earn a postsecondary credential to meet the nation’s talent goal, with 5.5 million of those credentials earned by adults with no recognized learning beyond high school, and another 6.1 million awarded to adults with some postsecondary experience but no credential. While many adults will gain valuable knowledge and skills outside of colleges and universities, it is mathematically impossible for these goals to be met without colleges and universities. And as a result, the time for sweeping systemic change to better serve adults was yesterday.

A 2007 article in the Journal of Higher Education by Joe Donaldson and Barbara Townsend looked at how often adult learners received focus in scholarly work in academic journals, and how these adult students were portrayed. Not surprisingly, the literature review indicated that adult students were the topic of a minute fraction of research over the study period (1990–2003). While this is somewhat dated information, one wonders how much has really changed.

The authors categorize scholarly work focused on adult learners into four categories. While their research targeted how adult learners were described in academic writing, their framework is even more useful, in my opinion, in helping others understand how adult learners are perceived by colleges and universities.

  1. Invisible—The researchers note here that adult learners don’t appear at all in the literature, and that the experiences of young, residential students are treated as the norm.
  2. Acknowledged but Devalued — In this category, adults are included in the literature, but are viewed as different from the dominant culture. They are often viewed as having deficiencies or problems because their needs vary from those of younger, full-time students.
  3. Accepted—In this category, age is the primary way that adults are distinguished from younger students. Adult students are perceived as valuable because they may increase enrollment, and their needs are not treated as problematic.
  4. Embraced—Here, adult learners are valued as contributing, full members of the campus community, and the literature reflects new theories or models that can improve adult learners’ experiences.

Much has changed since 2007. Yet the questions remain. Many states and communities have launched efforts to bring back learners who stopped out of college. But have the circumstances and conditions that led to the student stopping out in the first place changed? Are adult learners who are enrolling in post-high school education for the first time going to find inclusive environments, faculty, and student bodies that value their experiences?

We know that some institutions are transforming themselves to serve adults better—and, ironically, better serving younger students, as well, given that many 18-year-olds have very adult responsibilities. Yet, we also know that many adults are not finding the support and structures they need to succeed.

And so, we ask our institutional partners regarding their efforts to raise American education levels: Are your adult learners ignored or are they embraced? Do you build systems and supports for young, full-time students and then wonder why adults and part-time learners stop out? Do you recognize the valuable experiences and learning that adults have gained over years in the workforce or military? Or do you require students to re-learn what they already know?

Adults are the answer to our talent challenges, and our postsecondary system needs to change to accommodate their needs. We don’t have time to waste.

Haley Glover is a strategy director for Lumina Foundation, leading Lumina’s mobilization strategies, focusing on communities and institutions of higher education, and on work to define and expand student pathways to success.

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