Student Zaq Woodward studies in a common area at a table in front of a window.
Once homeless adult student Zaq Woodward studies in solitude. See more in the photoessay, The college climb steepens.

If we are to reach the goal of ensuring that 60 percent of Americans have college degrees or workforce-ready credentials by 2025, this much is clear: As a nation, we must focus on adult students, especially people of color.

An incremental credentialing system offering “credentials as you go” recognizes learning as it occurs in stages. In such a system, progress toward a degree entitles students to certificates and workplace certifications of immediate value—before the completion of an associate or bachelor’s degree.

The idea has attracted interest because of its potential for more quickly helping those hurt in the economic downturn. That’s especially true if they are also high-quality credentials—those that lead to good jobs and further education.

We know that adult learners are widely diverse in terms of age, work and life experiences, and family and civic obligations. For adult students, the time it takes to earn a degree, including an associate degree, can be overwhelming. Programs often take twice the nominal two-year or four-year period to complete—far too long while also balancing work and families.

In my previous job, where I talked to adult students at community colleges, they would tell me about when “life happens.” When it does, and they are forced to leave school due to jobs or family obligations or finances, we often fail to recognize what they’ve learned. We treat these students as if they’ve gained nothing, and we award no credentials.

This only adds to adult learners’ negative experiences with higher education. This is especially true for Black, Hispanic and Latino, and Native American students, who are less likely to enroll in college or complete a degree or credential due to systemic racism. New reports by The Education Trust shed light on the urgent need to increase degree attainment among Black students and Hispanic and Latino students as we emerge from the pandemic. Simply put, programs seeking to better serve adult learners of color need to resolve issues that discourage adults and thus deny some racial and ethnic groups success in higher education.

Incremental credentialing programs—especially those that center on quality and equity—can play a key role in post-high school education. They can disrupt the status quo by creating and awarding shorter-term credentials, such as certificates and workforce certifications, that have real workplace value in case students need to leave school. Ideally, of course, we would also offer incremental credentials for learning on the job or in the community, accelerating innovative paths to degrees.

Not everyone is a fan. Some research says incremental credentials lose value in the labor market and actually create or worsen inequities. But other evidence shows the benefits of these credentials and supports the idea of giving credit to learners where and when it is due.

As the debate continues, Lumina will focus its work on ensuring equitable access to quality credentials that help adult students of color keep learning, earning, and contributing their diverse talents to a better world.

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