Colleges roll out a new ‘homecoming’ for adult students
Adult Learners

Colleges roll out a new ‘homecoming’ for adult students

Students embrace at reunion.

Fall homecoming feels different this year as schools welcome back not only nostalgic grads but also those who left early and want to return to finish their degrees. The warm welcome parallels a new infusion of support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and for community colleges. These are all driven by factors that reflect old concerns and new.

The nation’s need for talent amid a shortage of skilled workers is one factor. Others include declining overall enrollment and the presence of many older students. Then there’s the national reconciliation on race, and a long-overdue recognition that many students of color and the institutions that serve them deserve more funding and support.

In response, we see a surge of interest in community colleges, HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions, and in short-term job training. And that homecoming? Many institutions are working to lure back some of the 36 million Americans who left college without earning a degree. They are focusing on adult students and building better programs for people of color, first-generation students, and others.

Pilot projects and partnerships, some supported by Lumina Foundation, are starting up across the country, including these:

Two dozen predominantly and historically Black community colleges are working with Complete College America to develop new pathways to credentials. The schools will look at enrollment figures, completion rates, and other data. They will look for ways to help students who struggle with childcare, family obligations, and other challenges. The National Center for Education Statistics says the median age of community college students is 24. More than a third are between 22 and 39 years old.

The Racial Equity for Adult Credentials in Higher Education (REACH) Collaborative assists adult students of color in six states, focusing on embedding short-term credentials in associate degree programs. This collaboration allows adults to pursue better jobs while continuing to work toward degrees.

In California, the state and Apple have announced plans for a Global Hispanic-Serving Institution Equity Innovation Hub. The $50 million hub at California State University, Northridge, is designed to attract more Hispanic and Latino students into lucrative careers in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology. It also will help accelerate education equity, said CSU Chancellor Joseph I. Castro, who is also a Lumina board member. A key feature: mentorship opportunities and connections to employers. The Pew Research Center reports that Hispanic adults make up only 8 percent of STEM workers even though they represent 17 percent of the total workforce.

Education Strategy Group, citing what it calls a critical turning point forced by COVID-driven economic shifts and the need for millions of people to obtain new skills, has produced a higher-ed playbook for institutions that pulls together strategies to help adult students.

In North Carolina, five HBCUs have joined Lumina’s HBCU Adult Learner Initiative to support adult students. The program includes training to help faculty devise equity-focused online classes. It will help the HBCUs improve their already-impressive service to students, including the nation’s 7 million Black adults who lack education beyond high school.

Also in North Carolina, five community colleges are part of NC Reconnect, a pilot project to attract adults. “In a matter of months on a community college campus, adult learners can acquire skills and credentials that can change their families’ economic trajectory,” said MC Belk Pilon, president and board chair of the John M. Belk Endowment, which is funding the effort.

In Michigan, Grand Valley State University and Grand Rapids Community College used a federal grant to establish Educational Opportunity Centers. These centers will support adult students. It will also assist those who are unemployed, stuck in low-wage jobs, or who need help with English-language skills or stable housing.

There are more examples. And they all benefit from the principle of enlightened self-interest. Yes, the schools want to help students and throw open the doors of opportunity. But they’re also hearing from business leaders and policymakers: The private sector needs more people who have post-high school learning and training. And if we don’t educate and train adults, many of whom need more and better support to succeed, we simply won’t get there.

“It’s not mathematically possible,” Mike Krause, former executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, told EducationNC. Higher ed has to adapt, he said, or companies will build their own alternatives.

So, for a multitude of reasons—including enrollment issues, racial justice and equity, and the demands of governors, legislators, and corporate partners—many schools have a simple message to prospective students this season: Welcome home.


Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis committed to making learning opportunities beyond high school available to all.

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