By Frank Swanzy Essien, Jr., Ph.D., and Kelle Parsons

Some want better jobs or need to support their families. Others want to break through longstanding barriers. Adult learners have good reasons for seeking college degrees – but these often aren’t enough.

Fewer than half, or 45.7 percent, of the 174 million Americans over age 25 have a degree or certification. And, compared to 50 percent of white adults, just 34 percent of Black adults, and 27.8 percent of both Native American and Hispanic adults, hold college degrees.

To increase those numbers, Lumina Foundation is partnering with American Institutes for Research on a study to better understand adult learners’ needs and what colleges can do to help them – especially Black, Latino, and Native American students. Early interviews with students of color across multiple states reveal important insights. Their reasons for pursuing degrees vary, and include professional and personal motivations, such as:

  • Career advancement. Many learners say they lost jobs or were demoted because they lacked a degree. This meant going back to college to pursue the “piece of paper” that proves their skills to employers. The degree, they said, trumped their job experience. One said: “I have the experience and the know-how that I need to advance in school operations because I’ve done a little bit of everything… and I have relationships built up. But I need to have the actual document, the degree, before I can advance.”
  • Improving families’ lives and breaking cycles of oppression. Others say they want to improve the lives of their children; one said that motherhood was the ultimate turning point for her return to college. Another student, who was formerly incarcerated, said the goal was to go straight back to college and never return to prison. Another said a degree could help break cycles of oppression: “I was like, ‘I will not be a statistic.’ And I think that’s when it changed for me. It became less about completing my mom’s dream… and more about me fighting the system of oppression that I didn’t realize existed.”

Three crucial questions

These stories show the why for returning to college, but that’s just the starting point. Colleges need to do more to support adult learners as they enroll, learn, and graduate. That’s why our study will dive deeper into three other crucial points.

First, we’ll look at the experiences and goals of adult learners of color who face longstanding barriers. Second, we’ll focus on how adult learners decide to enroll – a much different process than high school graduates who are in the ”pipeline” to higher education. Third, we’ll analyze how systems and processes can be improved, such as with flexible registration dates and class schedules. Stay tuned: our findings will be reported this summer on AIR’s website.

[Editor’s Note: If you’re an adult learner and you’d like to participate in this survey, or you’d like to share it with other adult learners, you’ll find the survey visit the Adult Learner Survey by American Institutes for Research. Your insights will help educators better serve people like you who want to keep learning. Frank Swanzy Essien, Jr., Ph.D., is strategy officer for research at Lumina Foundation, an independent foundation that helps all Americans learn beyond high school. For this study, he partnered with a team led by Kelle Parsons, senior researcher at American Institutes for Research. Special thanks to Jasmine Howard and Chelsea Hood for contributing to this story.]

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