LOUISVILLE, Ky. – As it did for a lot of people, the pandemic gave Kara Reilly time to think.
“My turning moment was when I was shut down and I had 11 weeks to sit around,” said Reilly, 49, a hairdresser whose salon here closed early in the pandemic. Seeing that “things could literally end in a split moment” pushed her to revisit an old goal: going to college, maybe to become a high school English teacher.
Then, on June 8, Jefferson Community & Technical College announced a Jump-Start Grant offering a year’s free tuition for new students 25 and older in the region.
A week later, 344 students had applied. By month’s end, there were 665 – including Reilly – more than double the college’s June 2019 applications.
“It gets people’s attention any time you say ‘Free,’ ” said Jimmy Kidd, the director of admissions.
“Free college” or “promise” programs have long focused on recent high school grads. But now a convergence of factors – a dwindling pool of traditional-age students, the call for more educated workers and a pandemic that highlighted economic disparities and scrambled habits and jobs – is putting adults in the spotlight.
Getting the roughly 35 million adults age 25 and over with some college and no degree – or those like Reilly who never enrolled – to engage is crucial but not easy. One huge problem: Many programs aimed at adults are not set up to serve them.
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Cost is an obvious barrier, which is why free tuition gets attention. The Michigan Reconnect offer of free community college tuition for those 25 and older was flooded with applications after opening in February.
But “free” is not straightforward.
Missouri’s Fast Track Workforce Incentive Grant, created in 2019 to target those 25 and older, has a “clawback” provision. Students who don’t fulfill requirements must repay it as a loan with interest. (“It’s a real barrier,” said Zora Mulligan, the state’s commissioner of higher education.) Only 500 people have enrolled in two years. Other state programs, including one in Kentucky and a new one in Louisiana, offer free tuition only for study in certain fields.
In fact, a new analysis of “adult promise” programs found numerous requirements that conflicted with the needs of many adult students.
Two big hurdles, said study co-author Alexandria Walton Radford of the American Institutes for Research, were that applicants be first-time college students and that they attend full time. “Free college tuition only gets you so far,” she said.
College has been set up for 18- to 22-year-olds with flexible schedules who like to sleep in and take weekends off – and are supported by parents. Adults may have jobs, child care concerns, questions about past credits, loan defaults, even anxiety about returning to school, said Laura Perna, executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania.
“There is a complexity to adult learners,” Perna said. Programs to serve them must consider finances, schedules and supports. “It is really recognizing, ‘What are the circumstances of individual people’s lives?’ If someone is to enroll in college, how do you make it possible for them to attend?”
'Having that piece of paper'
For Valissa White, 29, a single mother, going to college requires housing help and medically appropriate schooling and child care for her 8-year-old son, who has congenital heart failure and an intellectual disability.
Her apartment at Family Scholar House in Louisville, a program that supports low-income parents attending college, is about as different from a dorm as you could imagine. It is spotless and with a level of organization that hints at the demands of her life.
She wakes every morning an hour before her son for prayer and reflection, and to make breakfast. “The night before,” she said, “I have everything organized – his backpack, my purse.”
There are lists on the fridge – strawberries, spinach, bananas and yogurt to get at Kroger, pulmonology appointments and swim lessons for her son, reminders to update her resume and renew her car registration – and workspaces for both of them. Hers features her diplomas, awards from the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society and folders of to-do lists.
White, like many adult students, has quality work experience. After graduating from high school in Pulaski, Tennessee, she worked as a bank teller and was once held up by a robber. After her pay rose by just $1.60 an hour in five years, she took an administrative job at an automotive manufacturer that assembled car headlamps. Her skills got her hired away by a competitor, with more responsibility – and pay of more than $50,000 a year. In late 2017, she was laid off.
“Not having an education, not having that piece of paper,” White said, made her feel vulnerable. Without family to lean on – she was raised by her grandmother – she moved into public housing. She enrolled at Columbia State Community College, tapping federal grants and the “Tennessee Reconnect” adult promise program to pay for school. Savings and a loan covered living costs.
In May 2020, White earned an associate degree in business administration, with a 3.84 GPA. She finished while helping her son attend school remotely. Recently, she started classes toward a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership and learning at the University of Louisville.
That degree program is not free. But a key attraction is a course in which students create a portfolio of prior experience – and can earn up to 48 academic credits for it, which saves money and time. Adults with workplace skills such as human resources training or financial management deserve credit for such college-level learning, said Mathew Bergman, a professor who teaches in the program.
“If we are not doing this,” he said, “it is a social justice issue. Should you not get college credit just because we don’t teach it here?”
Enrollment in this program has more than tripled since 2008; it now has almost 500 students, a number that remained steady during the pandemic. It’s structured to recognize the needs of adults and move them toward degree completion. Some courses are compressed into eight-week blocks; students can attend in person, hybrid or online; there are five start dates during the year and generous credit transfer policies. Students who drop out because of life issues can return, keep earned credits and have their GPAs “started fresh,” Bergman said.
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Traditional institutions have treated adults “as a kind of afterthought,” he said. It just makes sense to help them return and speed through, said Bergman. “They did not go to school not to finish,” he said. “They went thinking they would finish, and life intervened.”
This is a fairly new perspective.
Shasta College in Redding, California, serving a rural region in the northern part of the state, had an eye-opening experience five years ago while planning an adult-friendly accelerated program. When a task force took stock, said Kate Mahar, dean of innovation and strategic initiatives, it discovered that “we were not set up to serve people who had responsibilities other than school.”
Courses were held midday, making it almost impossible to hold a job and attend full time, which allows students more financial aid. Support offices only were open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. And, said Mahar, schedules shifted each semester, so adults had to reorganize their lives.
In response, Shasta created a compressed “full time” schedule of two eight-week courses, predictable class times, advisers for each student and the option to take time off. Overall student enrollments in the program have more than doubled, to nearly 200, and remained steady even during this past academic year. (Eighty-three percent of students are over age 24.) Students have an 82% course completion rate.
One reason for that is the support, said Eric Olson, 44, who works in software sales and earned his associate degree in May. As someone who had never connected with academics, he wanted to “start something and see it all the way through.”
But in the midst of his studies, he stumbled and had to retake an economics course. His counselors reached out. “Right away they were like, ‘What happened?’ ” he said. A counselor arranged tutoring, keeping him motivated and “feeling that I am not doing this alone.”
Otherwise, it would have been easy to drop out. “You get discouraged,” Olson said. “It is very easy to say: ‘You know what? I’m just going to pick this up later.’ ”
Many adults do go back, then drop out. Some even earn degrees – but leave without getting them. One big surprise at Shasta came as the college conducted an audit of those who’d dropped out despite having earned all or nearly all the required number of credits. It turned out that about 35% of them were missing a single required computer literacy class.
“It had been created a decade ago, when people did not come in with those skills,” Mahar said. The requirement has been removed. As a result of the audit, she said, 258 degrees have been awarded retroactively to students in the past two years.
The urgency for adults to earn degrees has been underscored by the pandemic, which had the greatest economic impact on those without higher education. In Kentucky, Aaron Thompson, president of the state’s Council on Postsecondary Education, last fall tweeted an infographic showing 89% of Kentuckians on unemployment lacked a college degree or credential.
Thompson, whose father “was an illiterate coal miner” and mother completed only eighth grade but who earned a doctorate in sociology, said raising educational levels is crucial to prosperity in the state. “There is a direct correlation between building wealth and having a highly educated workforce,” he said.
Many states have embraced education attainment goals. Tennessee’s is Drive to 55 – to equip 55% of Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate by 2025. In Kentucky, the target is 60% by 2030 – “60x30”.
Higher education has been a tough sell in Kentucky. Only about half of high school graduates go on to college, which makes adult education crucial, but since 2012, Kentucky’s adult undergraduate enrollment has fallen nearly 50%
It is a stubborn problem. Thompson said many people believe they don’t need college. Growing up, “many felt if you wanted to go to college, you were getting above your raising,” he said, adding that the sentiment still lingers. He also thinks people don’t know what’s available, including the state’s “free tuition” for study in some fields.
Last year, he launched a media campaign, tapping hip-hop artist Buffalo “B.” Stille of Nappy Roots, who recently earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Louisville, as a spokesman. Adult education recruiters attend college fairs to reach parents who come with their high schoolers.
For many adults, college feels like too big a mountain to climb. That is one reason Ty J. Handy, president of Jefferson Community & Technical College, Kentucky’s largest community college, believes that “we have had a devil of a time getting students to come.”
He hopes the college’s Jump-Start Grant will change that. There are positive signs, but it will take more than free tuition.
After Reilly, the hairdresser, finished her orientation, she met with George Scott III, an adviser, in his second-floor office. He walked her, step by step, through registration.
They picked classes and planned a schedule. Online Mondays, on campus Wednesdays. She works other days and also needs “mom time.” (She has twin 15-year-old daughters.) The two bantered about enticing English and history classes but settled on basics: a “transition” math course; Foundations of College Success (required); and a digital literacy class. Reilly’s first day is Aug. 16.
She thanked Scott profusely. He printed her schedule. Reilly tucked it into her leather shoulder bag and left to get her student ID. “I just learned how to use a Mac a week ago!” she marveled.
This story about free college for adults was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Free college degree? Even with financial aid, adult students struggle