As colleges stare down declining demographics, now is the time to support adult learners

by Jeremy

Editor’s note: Becky Klein-Collins is the vice president for impact at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

Undergraduate enrollment trends look bleak for colleges and universities, with another dire prediction ahead: a declining number of high school graduates.

Image of Becky Klein-Collins

But the nation’s postsecondary institutions need not be victims of a single disturbing trend. If demography is destiny, higher education can shift its focus to an entirely different demographic category: adults with no college credentials.

Enrollment woes in the postsecondary world are real. The pandemic depressed fall 2020 undergraduate enrollment by 3.6% overall and more than 10% at community colleges. Meanwhile, a recent report from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education found that the number of new high school graduates each year — colleges’ go-to source for students — will begin a long-term decline in 2026. Admissions officers won’t turn this ship around by relying primarily on new high school graduates.

Meanwhile, almost half of Americans ages 25 to 64 don’t have a postsecondary credential, according to an analysis by the Lumina Foundation, even as evidence mounts that workers will need them to access the jobs we expect will shape our post-pandemic recovery. Labor market analytics firm Emsi recently predicted that the occupations likely to thrive in 2021 would be in mid-skill and higher-skill industries like logistics, healthcare, tech, and the skilled trades.

Becky Klein-Collins is the vice president for impact at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

Permission granted by CAEL.

Shifting the focus to these adult learners could also address some of the racial and ethnic inequities in educational attainment rates. Adults age 25 and older currently without postsecondary credentials are disproportionately Black, Hispanic, and Native American.

Supporting adult learners means building on the many colleges that have long focused on this population. Effective strategies go well beyond providing night or weekend classes. Instead, they address the real needs returning adult students have. For instance:

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