Nearly 54 million adults in the United States hold an associate degree or have attended some college without earning a bachelor’s degree. For too many of these students, the financial barriers to degree completion seem impossible to overcome. Roughly 60% of adults have considered returning to school to complete a degree, but worry about cost.
“Adult students often think about the costs of going back to college in terms of past, present, and future,” explains Karen Goos, assistant vice provost for enrollment management at the University of Central Missouri. Adult learners must consider not only the promise of future earnings when deciding to re-enroll, but also past debts and present financial responsibilities.
Writing for Medium, Terri Taylor, deputy director for postsecondary finance at Lumina Foundation, outlines three innovative strategies that states and institutions are implementing to address adult learners’ past, present, and future financial concerns.
To address adult students’ past financial stress and to ease the path to re-enrollment, Wayne State University has launched the Warrior Way Back program for students who left the university with debt and no degree. In the program, former students with an outstanding balance of $1,500 or less can re-enroll and “learn” away their debt. Wayne State will forgive a third of students’ debt each time they successfully complete a semester.
Wayne State’s debt-forgiveness program offers an alternative to the “widespread practice of account and transcript holds that have unnecessary punitive effects on low-income students and exacerbate racial education attainment disparities,” says Dawn Medley, associate vice president for enrollment management. “Many students are shut out of the path of higher education for small balances and never able to pursue their dream—we’re excited to reopen that path.”
To address adult students’ present financial stress, several states have implemented “Adult Promise” programs, which reach out to and supply eligible adults with federal, state, institutional, and private aid. Some states are also launching programs that cover students’ tuition and fees upon their enrollment in a college or university. For example, Washington is piloting a program that supplements financial aid awards with microgrants and child care support.
To address future financial concerns, institutions are working to ensure adult students have the skills and experiences they need to secure jobs after graduation. For example, the Quality Assurance Commons recently piloted a program across 27 programs at 14 institutions to assess their new Essential Employability Qualities. The program uses both student and employer input to determine the skills all graduates need, including those related to teamwork, communication, and critical thinking (Taylor, Medium, 9/20).