Tailoring college promise programs to the needs of adult learners

Several dozen of the nation’s “college promise” programs are making free college tuition available to adult learners, a population largely excluded from the earliest waves of free-college initiatives. However, some experts told The Hechinger Report that the programs could have limited impact unless they’re specifically designed to meet older students’ unique needs.

Seeking to meet state attainment goals and compensate for a shrinking pool of traditional-age students, 67 U.S. promise programs now provide free tuition for students age 25 and older, according to new findings from the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The programs span 22 states and the District of Columbia; 15 are statewide programs, and just four serve adults exclusively.

Related: States exploring options for adult college promise programs >

Is ‘free’ enough?

The promise of “free” college can be alluring, and some programs have seen rapid uptake. “Michigan Reconnect,” which offers adult learners free community college tuition, reported that more than 62,000 people had applied mere weeks after the program launched on Feb. 2.

Others have seen less enthusiasm once potential students read the fine print. “Free college tuition only gets you so far,” Alexandria Walton Radford, who co-authored the AIR research, told The Hechinger Report.

Some states have limited free tuition to certain areas of study. Others, like Missouri’s Fast Track Workforce Incentive Grant, require students to pay back their tuition as a loan-plus-interest if they ultimately fail to fulfill program requirements. Across two years, just 500 Missouri students have enrolled.

“It is important to consider not just which programs are technically adult eligible but also which programs have adult-friendly criteria that enable more adults to participate,” the AIR study points out. For instance, just 30 of the 67 programs AIR analyzed allow adults with some college credit but no degree—of whom there are approximately 35 million nationwide—to receive free tuition.

And just 18 of the programs permit part-time college attendance. Full-time attendance requirements present a significant hurdle for many students juggling their studies alongside employment, parenting, and other commitments.

Recognizing, supporting the adult learner experience

Isolation also can be a barrier for adult students, who may gravitate toward online instruction or courses offered on nights and weekends, Melvin Hines, co-founder and CEO of the coaching and tutoring firm Upswing, told The Chronicle of Higher Education. “I think that’s the single biggest issue that nontraditional students face is that they seem to feel like they’re out on an island,” Hines said.

Related: Community colleges tailor support systems to serve adult learners >

It’s crucial to acknowledge adult learners’ daily experience and tailor support accordingly, says Emily House, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and Student Assistance Corporation. The state since 2018 has offered a college promise program for adult learners, and “we talk about [them] as workers who go to school rather than students who work,” said House. The state offers program participants navigation services and works with colleges to ensure they’re making key resources available outside business hours.

In Kentucky, a bachelor’s degree program at the University of Louisville allows students to earn up to 48 academic credits for a portfolio showcasing prior learning and work experience. Awarding credit for those skills “is a social justice issue,” says Mathew Bergman, an associate professor leading the program at the university and an expert in adult learning. “Should you not get college credit just because we don’t teach it here?”

Related: Coronavirus crisis further complicating life for adult learners and student parents >

The program, designed intentionally for adult students, not only helps shrink the time to degree completion but also offers multiple modes of instruction, frequent start dates, and the option for students to pause their studies without penalty.

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