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An Untapped Source of Skilled Workers: Adults with Some College but No Degree

Older student

The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Job Opening and Labor Turnover (JOLTS) survey finds that job openings increased to a historical data series high of 10.1 million in June. With many employers searching for workers, reports of increased recruiting difficulty abound. And while media has given much attention to lower-wage job openings (e.g., service jobs in summer tourist areas), the same void is appearing in jobs requiring higher-education degrees. Meanwhile, some surveys suggest many employees are considering quitting their current job in what is becoming known as the Great Resignation.

These trends are coming together to emphasize the importance of regional and local efforts to build more robust pipelines of college graduates. But while most local workforce readiness strategies focus on the K-12 and traditional college-aged student populations, they may be overlooking a substantial source of untapped talent in their midst: the many adults in the United States who have some college credits but no degree.

A new report from the Graduate! Network (GN), a national organization that aims to support adult learners in reaching their education goals, finds that 45 million adults ages 25 and older have earned some college credits but have not yet earned their degree. This population represents a vast source of potential talent, and among them are many adults age 50 and older.

For one, AARP has noticed the opportunity. Some AARP state offices have worked with GN to show it’s never too late to achieve educational goals. AARP Kentucky highlights state resources such as Project Graduate, a degree completion support program for adults with 80 or more college credits, and Kentucky Work Ready Scholarships. AARP Texas uses webinars and interviews with adults who completed their degrees after age 50 to motivate and inspire others not to give up on their dream of graduating from college.

GN finds that older adults who attain their degrees increase the likelihood that younger family members will also graduate from college. The benefit, therefore, becomes multigenerational, and even a meaningful way to help address disparities in educational outcomes. Characteristics of the U.S. population of adults with some college but no degree reflect broader educational disparities nationally. Data from the BLS Current Population Survey show that Black and Hispanic/Latino adults are most likely to have obtained some college credits but not a degree. These differences in education completion rates have lasting effects. For individuals, falling short of the needed credits to graduate blocks access to the higher earnings and improved job prospects a college degree can offer. Worse, many also carry student loan debt – compounding the financial penalty of not graduating. Higher rates of college incompletion in some communities mean fewer graduates to fill jobs and boost local economies.

Fortunately, educational institutions are starting to realize that they must adapt to better support adult learners. This begins with understanding the myriad challenges adult learners can face: the administrative hurdles of trying to obtain credit for prior learning, financial barriers, and time constraints while working, caregiving, or both. These challenges make it critical that colleges and universities adjust accordingly, responding with greater flexibility and helping to remove the obstacles that can make a return to education so difficult. They must also create sustainable networks of support and encouragement for their adult students, with their unique challenges and competing responsibilities and who may be on their education journey over long periods.

With such adjustments, benefits travel in all directions. Better serving older learners benefits the educational institutions themselves, for mature students bring unique and valuable perspectives to classrooms, diversify learning approaches among students, and create new intergenerational mentoring and learning opportunities in educational settings. Age diversity within higher education also helps prepare students of all ages to thrive in the multigenerational workplace, further readying them for what the workplace will increasingly look like.  And from the perspective of employers, workers who have returned to the educational setting bring their unique educational experiences back into the workplace, benefitting the employers with both new perspectives and positions filled. Finally, the region gets a more educated workforce, benefitting its economy.

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.

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