To Reach Obama's 2020 Goal, Colleges Need to Support Adult Students, Panelists Say

January 19, 2010

Many more adults will need to enroll in college for the United States to meet President Obama's goal of having the world's largest share of college graduates by 2020, government officials and higher-education experts said at a panel discussion on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

The panelists encouraged colleges to take nontraditional students' needs into consideration and urged lawmakers to replicate and expand successful programs that support adult students.

The United States cannot attain the president's goal if people focus only on efforts, by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and others, to improve elementary and secondary education, Jane Oates, assistant secretary for employment and training at the Labor Department, said at the panel, which was held by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

The percentage of 25- to 49-year-olds without college degrees who are enrolled in college has been declining slightly since 1990, when 8.1 percent of such adults were pursuing a degree, said Patrick J. Kelly, a senior associate at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. Only 6.5 percent of that group are now enrolled in college.

Panelists pointed to the federal TRIO programs for disadvantaged students as examples of efforts that have succeeded in getting more students to enroll in college and persist toward a degree. The participants in Tuesday's event said programs like those need to be sustained and expanded.

Twenty-one percent of low-income students who receive Pell Grants with no support from other federal student-service programs complete a bachelor's degree in six years, said U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, a Democrat from Wisconsin, while 31 percent of Pell Grant recipients who also receive support from a TRIO program complete their degrees in the same time frame.

To graduate more adult students, colleges must take their needs and lifestyles into account, panelists said. Adult college students, the panelists added, usually do not live in dorms or engage in campus life as younger undergraduates do, so they often need different services or have different goals than do their younger counterparts. To help adults, colleges should provide grants that cover more than the cost of tuition, schedule classes more flexibly, including on nights and weekends, and provide a clear and direct path to a degree, Mr. Kelly said.

"An 18-year-old often cares more about a football team than they do about getting a job," Ms. Oates said, adding that colleges need to do more to communicate with employers to make adults' course work relevant to skills needed for jobs. Degree-granting programs for adults should also have a clear duration, she said.

"They have to see the light at the end of the tunnel," she said.