In 2007, Tlaloc Fierro went to a liberal arts college in Florida right after high school but quickly discovered that the experience wasn’t for him. He was more than prepared academically—he graduated a year early from high school. But his family struggled to pay tuition, even with a scholarship and financial aid.

And, beyond all else, he was depressed and homesick at the school far away from his home in Dallas. He never returned to campus when he came home for the summer after his freshman year. At 28, when he decided to return to school 10 years later, he chose a nearby community college with flexible courses and a food pantry to help balance his time and budget.

Students like Tlaloc aren’t included in the so-called “enrollment cliff,” which forecasts the decreasing number of “college-aged” in the next five or so years, because Tlaloc isn’t in the stereotypical 18- to 24-year-old demographic.

Yes, it’s true that high school graduating classes are shrinking in many communities. But the number of adult learners between 24 and 50 is growing exponentially. The number of working students and students with caregiving responsibilities, essentially students living adult lives, is also increasing.

If we shift our focus away from worrying about the enrollment cliff, we can reimagine how our campuses can serve all learners, especially adults, whether they’re 18 or 35. We can dedicate resources to community outreach, holistic student support, flexible class schedules, and hybrid course offerings.

Our investment in these students is invaluable—to both the institution and individuals. Institutions can level out their enrollment trends and account for declining high school graduates. More importantly, leaders can create a college campus that reflects the intergenerational workplace students head to after graduation. Creating culturally sustaining spaces that recognize adult learners bring their life experience and professional skills to the classroom enriches everyone’s learning. Adult learners are leaders and role models for their community, bringing what they learned in school and investing it back into the community.

During The Million Dollar Community College Challenge, community colleges nationwide told us how they’re embracing adult students on their campuses. Challenge finalists showed how they share opportunities with their community without focusing on the declining number of high school graduates or shrinking enrollment at the college. Instead, they showed how college credentials would support students’ aspirations—and the resources they’re investing to attain those dreams.

We recognize that making this shift isn’t easy. So, what can you do to ensure your college is better prepared to welcome all students?

  • Listen to student feedback on redesigning processes and authentically connecting with adult learners.
  • Consider navigator models with staff familiar with the demands adult learners balance to pursue education. With the expansion of holistic supports, evaluate who is accessing your services and make tweaks to guarantee availability for adult learners.

At Dallas College, Tlaloc brought his community advocacy to campus when he was hired as the campus food pantry’s first student assistant. His perspective and experience were essential in improving the pantry and designing other supports. After attending part-time, he completed his associate degree in 2022 and transferred to a local university to complete a bachelor’s degree in business innovation and entrepreneurship.

When we focus on the so-called “enrollment cliff,” and the “traditional” definition of college-aged student, we’re missing the opportunity to welcome students like Tlaloc onto campus. We miss the diversity of learners. We ignore the growth of high school dual enrollments students, under 18, who are uniquely navigating high school and college at the same time. We fail to see young adults increasingly carry the same adult responsibilities as their older peers, like caregiving and full-time work. We miss students in their 30s, 40s and 50s seeking that credential to level up in their career or take a new path all together. Our campuses are already full of students like Tlaloc. Students of all ages are coming to class or logging in online, with a full set of life responsibilities on their shoulders, but they’re ready and eager to succeed.

Ultimately, know that you are not alone in this important, transformational work. Many institutions and organizations are focusing their efforts to serve adults. Seek partners and learn from those reimagining the college experience to work for all.

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