Center for American Progress

Federal Access Policies and Higher Education for Working Adults

Federal Access Policies and Higher Education for Working Adults

Derek V. Price and Angela Bell outline core policy areas that can serve as a foundation for a progressive higher education agenda to benefit working adults.

Students study in a lounge area at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska. (AP/Nati Harnik)
Students study in a lounge area at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska. (AP/Nati Harnik)

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For the last 50 years, political, business, civic, and educational leaders have generally agreed that postsecondary education benefits both individuals and society. For individuals with a college degree, earnings are approximately 75 percent greater on average than for individuals with only a high school diploma. College-educated adults are also more likely to be employed more regularly and be in jobs with health and retirement benefits. They boast higher personal savings levels, and work in safer and more comfortable conditions in a positive organizational environment. College-educated individuals have improved health and life expectancy, increased personal status, more hobbies and leisure activities, and provide improved life opportunities for their offspring.

For society, the benefits of college education are also extensive. In general, higher education provides human capital that is associated with greater financial investments from global capital markets, and with higher economic productivity and growth. Moreover, society benefits from postsecondary education through increased tax revenues, increased consumption, increased workforce flexibility, and reduced reliance on government financial support. The college-educated population is less likely to commit and be convicted of crimes, and more likely to volunteer and make charitable donations, participate in civic activities such as voting, appreciate diversity, and adapt to the technological changes ubiquitous in the global economy today.

This consensus around the value of a more educated population was sealed some time ago—in 1965, in fact—when the U.S. Congress passed the Higher Education Act. HEA launched a set of federal grant and loan benefits to help families and students pay for college. The most widely known of these benefits was the Pell Grant, which was initi- ated by the 1972 amendments to the HEA. In 2006-07, the last year for which complete data is available, the Pell Grant provided almost $13 billion in grants to low-income students. Since 1972, the federal government has invested more than $150 billion in Pell Grants, which has contributed to the significant expansion of educational attainment in the United States.

In 1970 slightly more than 10 percent of adults aged 25 years and older had at least four years of college; three decades later 25 percent of adults had a bachelor’s degree or more. According to a recent report from the Rethinking Aid Study Group, the significant increase in college attendance and gains in completion “would almost certainly have been impossible without the federal student aid programs.” Although the overall educational attainment gains over the past four decades are impressive, the beneficiaries of federal access policies have generally been traditional-age students who graduate from high school and enroll in college within one or two years. In federal terms, these students are dependent students who rely on their parents or guardians to help pay for college. In part because working adults do not receive the same postsecondary education benefits as younger students, the United States is now 10th among the industrialized democracies in overall educational attainment among adults 25 to 34 years of age.

Today, postsecondary education is in the midst of a confluence of several factors, according to an issue paper from the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Specifically, there is:

  • Increased demand on higher education to produce graduates, provide services, and conduct research.
  • Diminished capacity of some higher ƒ education institutions to provide space for all the students qualified to enroll, while other postsecondary institutions are serving large numbers of students underprepared for college-level work.
  • Rising economic and fiscal stress at ƒ higher education institutions due to state long-term budgetary shortfalls and structural deficits, and the resulting increased reliance on tuition and fees as costs are shifted to students and parents, which makes college less affordable.
  • Increasing demands for accountability ƒ from lawmakers, business leaders, and enlightened educators about the “value-added” of higher education—what students are learning—and its relationship to the high costs of college and workforce needs.
  • Growing international competition from foreign nations, which are producing many more college graduates relative to the size of their adult population, especially in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the so-called STEM disciplines.

At the same time, technological advances and the rapid exchange of knowledge and information require new sets of skills for individuals and nations to compete in the labor and capital markets. The consequence of these changes in the global economy is that access to a highly accredited postsecondary education in the United States is more crucial in determining who has access to jobs, goods, and economic security. Importantly, this central role for postsecondary education demands a concerted, national effort to embrace both the increased diversity of future college students and the needs of the current adult workforce to enhance their skills and knowledge.

Several recent reports underscore the 21st century challenges we face as a nation. First, disparities in educational attainment persist across racial and ethnic groups: Forty-two percent of whites ages 25 to 64 have an associate’s degree or higher compared with 26 percent of African Americans and 18 percent of Hispanics. Second, assuming no significant changes in degree attainment patterns, the United States will fall 16 million degrees short of the number needed to match leading nations in the percentage of adults with a college degree and to meet the workforce needs of 2025.

Third, high-skill jobs that require advanced learning (a postsecondary education credential) will make up almost half of all job growth in the United States in the next decade. Without increasing the labor supply in these economic sectors, businesses and corporations will look elsewhere to hire college-educated workers. Fourth, stagnation in educational attainment is not only a problem of access to colleges and universities; in fact, barely half of students (54 percent) who begin college complete a degree or certificate, which ranks the United States last among the development economy member nations of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the number of high school graduates who enter the labor market is no longer growing faster than the number of adults who leave the labor market. In half the states, the number of adults 18 to 24 years of age is not projected to grow during the next decade, which means that in order to increase the number of individuals with postsecondary credentials, states will have to focus on adults 25 years of age and higher. This population represents almost two-thirds (65 percent) of the country’s 2020 workforce and consists of 70 million adults who do not currently have a postsecondary credential. It is these working adults that federal access policies do not adequately support, and whom the country needs to target in order to increase the share of working adults who earn a postsecondary credential.

In the pages that follow, we will briefly summarize the limitations of current federal access policies with particular attention to working adults. We then examine the core policy areas that can serve as a foundation for a progressive higher education agenda to benefit working adults. Our conclusion—briefly stated here and expanded upon in the main pages of this report—is that current federal access policies, including financial aid benefits such as Pell Grants and academic and social support programs such as so-called TRIO programs, should be adapted so working adults are treated equitably in eligibility and access to these benefits. More specifically, we recommend the following policy directions:

  • Expand existing federal access policies ƒ to better serve working adults.
  • Align existing workforce education ƒ and training programs with federal access policies so more adults can successfully transition between postsecondary education and training and the labor market.
  • Provide transparency in the amount ƒ and sources of financial aid available to working adults who pursue postsecondary credentials.
  • Enable public-private partnerships to ƒ support increased educational attainment for working adults.

As we will document in this paper, our recommendations for public policy approaches can help increase the number of adults with postsecondary credentials.

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Angela Bell