Policymakers should tailor state aid programs to increase post-secondary educational affordability for working adult learners.
Affordability is crucial for working adult learners seeking higher education, including rising and stranded talent. Many of these individuals work in low-to-moderate-income positions and lack the personal funds to pay for college fully. Tuition is a significant expense, but it is just one of many college-related costs. Working adult learners must consider books, fees, and other course expenses. They must also balance college costs with their other expenses, including housing, food, childcare, and transportation. Student loans are often used to pay for these costs of living. Because of their obligations to work and family, these individuals can seldom attend college full-time, and they may have to cut back on work while in school. Working adult learners who are also parents “are likely to experience a reduction in earnings while in college, which can leave their families in dire straits.”
Grants, scholarships, and other aid forms can be critical to the initial enrollment and ongoing educational success of working adult learners. Unfortunately, many state aid programs fail to address their needs, focusing instead on recent high-school graduates and full-time students. A 2018 report from the Education Commission of the States (ECS) found that “of 100 of the largest state financial aid programs … 48 are merit-based, 26 link eligibility to a high school graduation date, 30 require full-time enrollment, [and] 19 exclude two-year institutions.” Although additional state aid programs that include working adult learners have been introduced since this report’s publication, more must be done to support and include all learners. The ECS report further states, “State financial aid should not privilege certain postsecondary delivery models or enrollment intensities; rather, it should be adaptable and broadly inclusive.”
To make college more affordable, policymakers should revise state financial aid criteria to include more learners, such as part-time and adult students. This aid can be incorporated into existing programs, or states can create opportunities focusing on less-traditional students. State financial aid should also support course modalities and methods often utilized by working adult learners, such as online learning, competency-based education, and short-term credentials.