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Adults to college?

November 21, 2008

A couple of things seem to be true in states like Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. These states have each lost hundreds of thousands of industrial jobs in the past ten years — the jobs that provided middle-class livings to men and women with high school educations — and there are thousands more job losses to come in the next few months. And these states have unusually low rates of college-educated adults in their populations. Only about 33% of southeast Michigan adults have a four-year degree, compared to higher rates among adults in Connecticut and Oregon. Almost everyone agrees that the new businesses and jobs of the future will require highly educated workers, managers, and designers/engineers, from Tom Friedman to the editorial page of the Detroit Free Press. So what should the rustbelt states be doing to try to remedy their “talent gap”?

One part of the solution is pretty obvious. We need to ratchet up the “culture of education” in the public so families will encourage and support their children in school and in their pursuit of college attendance. There is a cascade of policies that are needed here, from promoting the value of education to parents, to improving attainment in K-12 schools (so that students are prepared for college work) to managing university tuition levels and financial aid and student loan programs to make sure that college is attainable for everyone.

But what about the generation of young people who have already passed the traditional age of attendance and have entered the work world without a college degree? There are over 160,000 people in the Detroit metropolitan region alone between the ages of 25 and 34 who have attended college but have not completed a degree. This is a large population — and their economic futures are dim without further education. If programs could be created that would allow a large percentage of these young people to complete their degrees, their futures would be enhanced, and Detroit would be a more attractive region for new businesses because of the larger talent pool. Surveys indicate that a large percentage of this population wants to complete a college degree. So the challenge to the colleges and universities is straightforward: what can you do to make your programs more accessible and attainable to these young adults? Is it more convenient scheduling? Is it a better mix of traditional and online programs? Is it more generous and more easily understood financial aid programs?

Before any of these changes will occur, universities need to be convinced that young adults are a part of their missions and that they can be successful. Fortunately, there are some good examples of universities that have succeeded in providing access to large numbers of these older students and displaced workers. And their evidence is positive. Faculty attest to the value brought to the classroom by students with a broader range of life experience. And they confirm as well that older students often bring a discipline and determination to their studies that permit them to excel.

What is currently less well understood is the degree of impact that college completion has on the careers of older students. Most studies on the economic impact of college focus on the earning differential of a baccalaureate degree for traditional-age students, and it would be useful to have similar study that provides information about non-traditional students. Likewise, it would be interesting to see a study of typical career trajectories for these non-traditional students.

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