This column contains a correction.
While much of the public narrative about college students facing COVID-19 revolves around the stereotype of an 18-year-old living in a dorm or at home with their parents, the typical college student today is an adult struggling to balance college with long work hours and family responsibilities. As the pandemic rages on and the recession threatens to deepen, policymakers have an obligation to seek ways to improve these students’ odds.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic began, adult students faced many hurdles to success in a higher education system not designed for them. Many of them attend public colleges that have suffered from state disinvestment ever since the Great Recession, while tuition and living costs have grown more and more out of step, both with available financial aid and with wages for workers without a college degree.
Over the past few months, COVID-19 has only exacerbated those hurdles. Many working adult college students have lost employment, face more child care duties due to school closures, and struggle to afford the technology they need to attend virtual classes. As states face budget crises due to the impact of COVID-19, Congress has a responsibility to step in now and help to alleviate the burden adult students are shouldering during this unprecedented time.
This column presents three policy solutions that federal policymakers should consider to support adult students through this recession: (1) expanding the federal Pell Grant program, (2) reimagining the Federal Work-Study program, and (3) providing affordable computers and internet services.
Adult students are today’s normal
Nearly 60 percent of all undergraduates, or more than 13 million, are adult students—defined by the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study as anyone who is older than the age of 24, independent for the purposes of financial aid, working full time, or 30 hours or more, while enrolled, or active military or veterans.* Among them, most work full-time jobs; 41 percent have children or other dependents; and 11 percent are active military or veterans. Adult students are primarily women, and 2 in 5 are Black or Latinx.
Expanding the federal Pell Grant program
Even with a job, adult students today cannot pay for college solely out of pocket. In most states, students from low-income backgrounds would have to work more than 15 hours per week to cover just the net price—the average amount students pay, after grants and scholarships are subtracted from the total cost of attendance, including tuition, fees, and room and board—at a public four-year institution. Research suggests that working more than 15 hours per week can negatively affect students’ academic performance. The Pell Grant—the main federal aid program for students from low-income backgrounds—is intended to help students afford these expenses. But while it covered nearly 80 percent of the cost of attendance at public four-year institutions during its peak year in 1975-76, in 2019-20, the maximum Pell Grant award covered less than one-third of those costs.
Since community colleges charge fairly low tuition—$3,700 on average per year—typically, students are able to pay tuition with grants and scholarships without having to take out loans. However, adult students usually don’t have financial aid to help them pay for other necessities such as text books, housing, food, health care, transportation, and child care. Out-of-pocket living, or nontuition, expenses average about $8,600 at public two-year colleges, more than $15,000 at public four-year colleges, and more than $27,000 at private nonprofit four-year institutions per year. Expanding the federal Pell Grant program would help to cover both adult students’ tuition and nontuition expenses.
Congress should eliminate this affordability gap by at least doubling the Pell Grant and indexing it to inflation. Congress could also reduce those nontuition expenses by allowing Pell Grant-eligible students to receive automatic approval for other means-tested programs, such as food, housing, and internet assistance.
Additionally, Congress should award a larger Pell Grant to student-parents. Twenty-two percent of adult students are parents, with more than half being single parents, and only one-third of undergraduate parents complete college within six years. Pell Grant-eligible adult students should receive an additional $1,000 for each child, capped at $3,000 per year. In a recent study, researchers found that increases in grant aid improves persistence and attainment.
Reimagining the Federal Work-Study program
Since February 2020, just before the economy felt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of unemployed Americans has skyrocketed from 5.8 million to 10.7 million. While balancing school and work responsibilities is no small feat, the challenge is even greater for adult students who need to work but cannot find employment. A reimagined Federal Work-Study program would help adult students get back to work.
In 1964, Congress created the Federal Work-Study program to provide part-time jobs to economically disadvantaged undergraduate and graduate students. Unfortunately, the program’s ability to serve students with financial need has diminished since its inception. In the mid-1970s, the average work-study award covered more than 90 percent of tuition and fees at a public four-year college. Today, it covers only 16 percent of tuition and fees.
Congress could reform the program’s nearly 60-year-old allocation formula, which currently disproportionately benefits wealthy institutions and thus serves few students from low-income backgrounds. Since most adult students attend public two-year institutions, Congress could prioritize work-study allocations to community colleges, where 56 percent of adult students have a family income of less than $32,000 a year. In 2015-16, community colleges only received 15 percent of funding for work-study programs. Congress could also increase the purchasing power of work-study to reflect the rising price of college.
Additionally, as a response to the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education permits work-study for remote work, but it’s not required. Since COVID-19 has shifted most colleges and universities to remote instruction, the Education Department should require them either to provide remote work-study jobs throughout the pandemic or to supplement lost funds with emergency aid and other grant funding.
Providing access to digital tools
Technology has become a basic need for college students because so many of them are studying online. Today, nearly 1 in 3 college students report issues with internet connectivity.
Members of Congress have a solution to this problem in the Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act, introduced in March by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). The bill would appropriate $1 billion to provide funding for computers, modems, routers, Wi-Fi, and videoconferencing services. It would also prioritize funding to minority-serving institutions, such as historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, tribal colleges, and so forth, as well as institutions in rural communities. Additionally, the bill would require institutions to prioritize support for low-income, unemployed, and first-generation students.
Congress should further strengthen the bill by including language that prioritizes community colleges. More than 40 percent of adult students attend public two-year institutions, which are underfunded to the tune of $78 billion.
If Congress acts now to support the needs of adult students, this growing demographic will be better able to weather this unprecedented crisis and contribute to the U.S. recovery. Beyond the suggestions made here, other sensible solutions include expanding the child and dependent tax credit to students with dependents; improving income-driven repayment plans to better reflect family composition; and ensuring free college programs include adult and returning students.
Also, when and if Congress passes additional, much-needed stimulus legislation, there are important fixes that it should make to the formula used in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which disadvantaged many adult students. For example, the next stimulus legislation should award aid based on colleges’ student head counts instead of their full-time equivalent (FTE) enrollment. Since the CARES Act formula used FTE, community colleges—with high proportions of part-time students—only received 27 percent of funds compared with the share of students they educate, which is 40 percent.
As helpful as all these ideas would be to many students, policymakers should also remember that these recommendations are merely patches to a higher education system that is fundamentally failing in its mission to advance economic mobility in the United States. In January, the new Congress and the administration of President-elect Joe Biden should be thinking ambitiously about rebuilding the system around affordability, quality, and accountability to ensure better opportunity and quality of life in a post-pandemic America.
Marshall Anthony Jr. is a senior policy analyst for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress.
* Correction, December 17, 2020: This column was updated to clarify which groups are defined as adult students by the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study.
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Marshall Anthony Jr.
Associate Director, Policy and Advocacy