Adult Learners Need Support to Meet Their Education Goals

The demand for an educated workforce remains high. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) continues to show that about half of the occupations it analyzes for its Career Outlook typically require some type of post-secondary degree. Meanwhile, college enrollment rates have declined for the third year and remain well below pre-pandemic levels.

Even before the pandemic-driven drop in college enrollment, employers could no longer count on the pipeline of traditional college-aged students to meet their demand for college-educated workers. For the nation to reap the economic benefits of an educated workforce, employers, educational institutions, and policymakers must find more ways to support all adult learners, including older students.

The Return on Education Remains High

The Federal Reserve's latest survey on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households (SHED) finds that self-reported financial well-being rises strongly with education. More than half of adults who went to college said the lifetime financial benefits of their higher education exceeded its cost. BLS data also show that higher levels of education continue to be associated with higher wages.

The BLS occupational outlook indicates that the demand for college-educated workers will not fade in the years ahead, and the declines in college enrollment during the pandemic may reverberate well into the future. Years or even decades from now, many of our college-aged youth who missed out on a degree during the pandemic will be adult students struggling to manage college courses with full-time work and caregiving. The strategies we develop today to support adult learners—whom the economy already needed to fill talent demands, even before the pandemic—will pay further dividends tomorrow.

Demographic changes and an aging workforce reinforce the need for a more expansive and inclusive education pipeline. For policymakers, support for adult learners will need to be part of efforts to improve labor force participation rates. Research indicates that the more frequent labor force exit among men without a four-year college degree has been driving the decline in labor force participation rates of "prime-age" men over the last 40 years. The suggested solution? Improve education rates among this group to encourage greater labor force participation through higher earnings.

Starting but Not Finishing College

Investments in higher education have significantly greater value when the student completes their program of study and obtains a degree. The SHED survey shows notably lower rates of both reported financial well-being and returns on education investment among those who had attended college but had not received a degree than those who did. Only 31 percent of those who did not obtain their degree said the benefits of their education exceeded the cost. This contrasted with 46 percent of those with an associate degree and 67 percent of those with at least a bachelor's degree.

Unfortunately, the number of adults in the U.S. who have some college but no degree is vast. An analysis of the Census Bureau's American Community Survey by the non-profit The Graduate! Network, AARP’s partner on our 50+ Education Comebackers initiative (more on that below), shows that 45 million adults 25 and older in the U.S. have earned some college credit but have not yet earned their degree. This represents about 20 percent of the adult population. The good news is that most higher education institutions now know that their survival depends on how well they support students through degree completion. Invariably, this means better serving the needs of those who aren’t of traditional student age.

Support for Adult Learners Pays Off

The 50+ Education Comebackers initiative features a series of state pilot programs in Kentucky, Texas, and Michigan to help older learners connect with resources and support that can help them overcome barriers, reskill or upskill for their careers, and, for some, fulfill a lifelong dream of higher education. One of the highlights of the initiative has been the opportunity it presents to share the stories of learners who returned to education after age 50 and successfully completed their degrees. Among older learners or “education comebackers,” the desire to be an education role model for their communities and younger family members is often their central motivation for pursuing a degree.

Data compiled by The Graduate! Network show that the advantages of degree attainment do indeed ripple beyond the personal level to benefit families and communities. The wage premium for people with a bachelor's degree (about $28,000 more per year than those with some college but no degree) benefits families and improves living standards. Degree attainment among people of color improves equity in income. Research finds that five years after graduation, the median Hispanic/Latino adult who completed a bachelor's degree earns 81 percent more than those who did not. The figure was 59 percent more for Black adults who obtained degrees.

Also related to education’s power and multidimensional benefits is that it is cross-generational. Children of parents who have earned a bachelor's degree are more likely to enroll, persist, and graduate from college. Research by The College Board shows that communities with more college completers are healthier, have greater civic engagement, and are generally better positioned to thrive when comparing data with those with some college but no degree.

Such data and findings should be strong incentives for employers, policymakers, and higher education institutions to build more robust support systems for all learners, wherever they are on their educational journey.

For more jobs data: Find the latest employment data in the AARP Public Policy Institute's (PPI) Employment Data Digest, PPI's monthly review of job trends for those ages 55 and over. Visit the AARP website's work and jobs section for articles on work and unemployment and job search resources. Visit the lifelong learning section for education resources and research.

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