How Your College Can Attract More Adult Learners To Enroll

July 2023. Community colleges are in a unique position to empower adult learners to earn a degree and improve their social mobility. Here are some ways to do it.

July 2023

The role of community colleges in US higher education has never been more important. In addition to workforce development, community colleges help narrow the gap between income and wealth. They provide educational opportunities to demographics that would otherwise not be able to access a degree, including–and especially–adult learners.

About 28% of adults in America do not possess any post-secondary degree. That’s a staggering 64 million adults whose highest educational attainment is a high school diploma or equivalent. This has serious implications in a lot of areas, not least of which is quality of life and social mobility as employment rate increases with educational attainment. And with it, earning potential.

Data released by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics show that Associate’s Degree holders earn more than $1,000 per month than those without a post-secondary degree. Throughout their lifetime, they will earn $400,000 more. Additionally, top-earning Associate’s Degree holders cross the six-figure threshold at $105,000 per year while their high school diploma-holder counterparts earn $14,000 less per year. 

An increase in earning potential can lead to greater financial stability and improved quality of life for adult learners and their families. Throughout their careers, adult learners may find it easier to qualify for promotions or new job opportunities with a degree. They benefit from skill development, access to specialized training, and to a professional network from their time earning a degree. It also demonstrates their commitment to continuous learning and development, which employers value.

So, what’s stopping adult learners from going to college?

In 2021, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) surveyed more than 2,000 adult learners and found the following as the most common barriers:

  • Financial factors are central to their enrollment decisions. 78% of non-applicants said they would have been more likely to apply to a program if it had been cheaper. This is especially important for adult learners, many of whom are sources of income for their own families.
  • Lack of time is another barrier for adults who never enrolled in college. Almost three-quarters of community college students work to support their families. It’s hard to fit education into schedules that are already packed with caregiving and working. It also takes time to finish a degree; the longer the program, the longer they have to wait to see its returns. 
  • Difficulty getting the right information. Adult learners rely primarily on online sources for information as they research their options. But they often feel lost or overwhelmed–or both–after weeks of researching so they abandon the idea of going to college.

Where do community colleges fit in this puzzle?

Community colleges are well-positioned to attract adult learners to enroll in college.

  • Lowest cost. For one, community colleges offer the lowest annual tuition and fees among all sectors of higher education. The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) reports that the average annual tuition at a community college is 65% lower than in an in-state public four-year institution. The lower tuition fees and shorter time to earn a degree enable them to balance education with their existing responsibilities without incurring excessive debt.
  • Flexibility. Community colleges offer a wide range of class schedules and modalities of instruction–including evening, weekend, online and asynchronous courses. This flexibility accommodates the busy lives of adult learners and enables them to fulfill their responsibilities while also attending school.
  • Open admission policies. Many community colleges have open admission policies, which means they accept more students than a four-year institution would. This inclusivity is encouraging for adult learners who may otherwise be hesitant to invest time and money in applying for college.
  • Practical career training. Community colleges provide a variety of programs that cater to the diverse interests and career goals of adult learners. These programs often focus on practical and job-oriented education, aligning their programs with the needs of local industries. The emphasis on workforce training can help adult learners acquire relevant skills for immediate employment or career advancement.

Empowering adult learners

Here are four key areas where community colleges can focus on to encourage adult learners to enroll in college.

  • Increase affordability. Community colleges can attract adult learners by lowering the cost barriers through scholarships and grants. Essential non-tuition-related costs such as transportation, housing, and textbooks make up 80% of a community college student’s expenses. Therefore, promoting methods for reducing those costs will increase affordability.
  • Increase flexibility: Adult learners are not all on the same schedule as they balance multiple responsibilities. Offer a variety of schedules and modalities that will allow them to progress through their program at their pace. It’s also important to extend support outside the hours of instruction by ensuring that they can access their course materials whenever, and from wherever.
  • Improve communication. Put critical information front and center on your program websites, so they are quick and easy for prospective adult learners to access. Critical information includes tuition and non-tuition costs, time commitment, and other requirements to enroll in and complete the program. Where possible, help them manage their budget by setting predictable costs for both tuition and non-tuition expenses.
  • Partner up. Partners in serving the adult learner community can be an invaluable resource. Often, these are private companies, local businesses, industry associations, and community-based organizations, who share the mission of ensuring equity in education. 

One such partner is BibliU. The company’s offering, Universal Learning, is a digital-first, day one access to course materials. 

With BibliU’s Universal Learning, colleges can increase their competitive advantage in attracting adult learners to enroll by:

  • Reducing the cost of attendance by lowering the cost of textbooks by as much as 50%
  • Helping adult learners manage their budget with a low, flat fee for their textbooks
  • Ensuring all students have access to their textbooks, anytime, anywhere
  • Promoting student success and persistence as demonstrated by Jackson College in Michigan

Discover how your institution can lower textbook costs and boost student success: Learn more about BibliU Universal Learning.

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