Keeping on pace for adult learners — highlights from DREAM 2022

While learners aged 25+ — often referred to as adult students — enroll in community colleges at higher rates than “traditional” students aged 18–21, the structures and processes in higher education are rarely designed to support adult learners’ success. Recently, the coronavirus pandemic has further exposed the many ways college is not designed to meet these students’ needs and highlighted the urgency for institutions and organizations to do more to support the enrollment, retention, and success of adult learners.

This was one of many topics discussed in February at DREAM 2022, Achieving the Dream’s (ATD) annual conference, which engaged over 3,600 practitioners and leaders in the community college field. This blog post will highlight some notable strategies for enrolling and supporting adult learners shared by Network colleges, partners, and researchers.


Equity at the center of workforce training

Illinois Central College (ICC) and its partners in the Workforce Equity Initiative (WEI) shared how they applied an equity lens to workforce training programs in high-demand employment sectors. ICC serves a community where less than 40 percent of adults have a postsecondary credential, while 60 percent of the jobs in the area require a post–high school credential. In such communities, colleges can be a key driver for families rising out of poverty by serving as workforce solutions delivery systems.

WEI’s program model targets high-demand workforce sectors and positions, accelerates high-quality certificate completion, and has so far led to jobs paying 30 percent above the regional living wage. The program encompasses a variety of best practices taking place across ATD Network colleges, including:

  • forgiving past student debts;
  • eliminating unnecessary prerequisite courses;
  • training all college personnel in diversity, equity, and inclusion; and
  • providing students with financial supports such as emergency financial stipends, childcare, and transportation assistance.

Guided pathways for underserved learners

In another session, speakers from Jobs for the Future and Lorain County Community College (LCCC) discussed programs designed to reach underserved learners in their communities. By developing guided career pathways and incorporating best practices and innovations to reimagine new intersections between work and learning, both programs have been successful in reaching two key groups of currently underserved learners: young men of color and unemployed or under-employed adults.

  • The Back on Track model has built pathways to family-supporting jobs for over 1,200 youth in seven cities across the country.
  • LCCC’s Fast Track program last year provided 1,003 unemployed adults with in-demand credentials and a path for continued skill development and long-term success.

Later in the week, Aspen Prize winner Valencia College joined the Aspen Institute to discuss enrollment trends, focusing on the question: If community colleges want to see enrollment rebound in the long term, what do they have to do? Valencia shared how they approached student learning and support during the pandemic.

When the pandemic hit, Valencia realized that 36,000 students were going to be impacted by having one or more of their classes convert to an online modality. They reached out and called each student to provide a personalized support as they prepared for this shift, responding to concerns and needs as they arose. The college also invested heavily in the quality of online learning, thereby allowing their faculty to make the pivot to online courses during the pandemic.

Now the college is seeing an increase in accelerated skills training program participants. They are also offering continuing education programs that lead to multiple industry certifications which are in high demand in central Florida, such as advanced manufacturing, transportation planning, and healthcare. After completing these various programs, students can translate them into college credit.


Student voices inform practice

Session presenters explored the latest data on working learners’ experiences from the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE), looking at the student and the college perspective to examine how institutions can better support students who are working. Key learnings from this session include:

  • With over 31 percent of the students responding to CCCSE’s latest survey saying they worked 30 hours a week or more, speakers challenged the audience to think about ways to intentionally design services for students who work full-time while they are trying to continue their college studies.
  • Metropolitan Community College built an adult learner lounge and provides flexible course scheduling on evenings and weekends to meet the needs of their working students.
  • In 2019–20, Austin Community College provided over $390,000 in childcare scholarships along with case management for their cadre of student parents.


Continue to learn and grow together

As more colleges seek new and proven ideas for enrolling and supporting adult learners in achieving their career goals, this quote from DREAM 2022 keynote speaker Heather McGhee’s book rings true: “We are greater than and greater for the sum of us.”

ATD will continue sharing knowledge across the Network to help colleges better serve their adult learners. From our focused efforts in the Prioritizing Adult Community College Enrollment initiative to our upcoming events, stay connected to continue learning with us, and share what you’re doing to serve adult learners in your community to be featured in future stories.

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