Returning to Learning: Adults’ Success in College is Key to America’s Future

Pusser, B.
Breneman, D. W.
Gansneder, B. M.
Kohl, K. J.
Levin, J. S.
Milam, J. H.
Turner, S. E.
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Lumina Foundation for Education
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages
Target Audience

In the United States, postsecondary education has long driven individual social mobility and collective economic prosperity. Nonetheless, the nation’s labor force includes 54 million adults who lack a college degree; of those, nearly 34 million have no college experience at all. In the 21st century, these numbers cannot sustain us. Increasing global economic competition and the rapid pace of technological change are revolutionizing the skills and educational qualifications necessary to individual job success and national economic well-being. If current trends hold, the United States will continue to trail global competitors on a number of key measures of educational achievement. Our nation is at a crossroads. With a committed and informed approach, we can help realize the vast educational potential of America’s adult learners and thus substantially benefit individuals, families, communities and the national economy. If we ignore the problem, we will further limit our adult citizens and erode the vitality of our essential institutions.

Broad access to higher education has long been a hallmark of the American postsecondary system. Despite its remarkable successes, the U.S. postsecondary system has often fallen short of its ideals in terms of access for various demographic groups. For much of our history, the nation’s robust industrial economy has allowed many Americans to earn a comfortable living without having earned a baccalaureate degree. Those days are all but gone. The knowledge economy and global industrial production have necessitated postsecondary education individually and nationally. Up¬grading our skills and credentials throughout the workforce is urgent.

Providing 54 million working adults with baccalaureate degrees is no small task for individuals, institutions or policymakers. In fact, it represents a dramatic, global shift in our national commitment to a college-educated citizenry. Our task is to transform not only educational institutions, their students and communities, but also the state and national policies that shape them. As this transformation promotes baccalaureate degree attainment for nontraditional students, it must also preserve the strengths of existing programs that do not culminate in the four-year degree.

To better understand how the nation can meet this challenge, Lumina Foundation for Education has funded a series of linked, exploratory research efforts called the Emerging Pathways project. The project, directed by researchers in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and their affiliates, has identified several areas of concern and points to a number of promising avenues for change. Among its findings are the following:

  • We must seek to develop the untapped potential of the 54 million working adults who have not completed a four-year de¬gree. Their success is essential to them¬selves, their families and communities, and to the health and security of the nation.
  • Adult learners must be recognized as a diverse and complex set of individuals with widely divergent aspirations, levels of preparation and degrees of risk.
  • Adult learners’ varying life circumstances require postsecondary policymakers, institutional leaders and other stakeholders to provide convenient and affordable access, create flexible subsidies and develop innovative planning tools to increase student success.
  • Adult students increasingly choose entrepreneurial postsecondary institutions and programs, including continuing education, contract education, satellite and online programs and for-profit institutions.
  • Credit for course completion remains a key component of baccalaureate attainment and other forms of credentialing. Institutions must better understand and document adult learners’ patterns of credit-bearing and non-credit-bearing course enrollment.
  • Pre-baccalaureate programs should increasingly be linked to credit attainment. The "hidden college" of non-credit, revenue-generating courses should also become a pathway to credit-bearing certificates and credentialing.
  • State attention and resources are devoted increasingly to P-16 educational reform programs, yet these programs do not adequately serve adult learners. This oversight must be corrected. Policymakers must recognize adult students’ diverse goals and differing educational pathways.
Benefits and Uses

This paper addresses the variety of adult learners that need to be helped. The data from this paper is vital to creating programs that can benefit adult learners of all demographics. The information in this article on adult learner’s varying life circumstance can be especially helpful to state staff and program administrators to increase retention and recruitment of adults in secondary school settings.

This resource was reviewed and vetted through the Policy to Performance: Transitioning Adults to Opportunity initiative of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education under Contract No. ED-04-CO-0051/0007.