Finding the Will to Fund State Financial Aid Programs for Adult Learners

Postsecondary & Workforce

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This blog is the second in a series following the Supporting Adult Learners for Postsecondary Success convening, which took place in early October. In an effort to continue the important conversations surrounding adult learner success, we have invited guest bloggers to cover topics including adult financial aid, alternative credit accumulation, near-completers and additional financial supports for adult learners. This post comes from Andy Carlson, principal policy analyst at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. 

For the last 18 months, SHEEO has engaged four states on a Lumina Foundation initiative to assess the feasibility and implementation of “promise-type” aid programs geared toward adult learners in their states. When this project began in early 2016, creating these types of programs for the nontraditional adult learner was a far-fetched idea because most legislators didn’t understand two important things: About 40 percent of college students are over age 25, and the traditional educational pipeline is running dry. For example, in recent years, state legislatures have considered promise programs to cover free tuition exclusively for traditional students enrolling in postsecondary education straight from high school.

In 2017, however, many state lawmakers and governors now understand the importance of focusing on adult learners. For example, Indiana and Tennessee passed legislation to create promise programs for adult learners during their last legislative sessions. 

This progress was a key theme at the Education Commission of the States’ Supporting Adult Learners for Postsecondary Success convening held in early October. And more work is needed to move from simply acknowledging the need to serve adult learners to addressing programmatic and policy barriers that undermine their access and success, especially in state financial aid programs. The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) created a framework to ensure aid programs are more accessible for low-income, nontraditional adult learners. To be most effective, aid programs should:

  • Prioritize need over merit and make sure eligibility requirements do not prevent adult learners from accessing funds.
  • Be designed to serve all nontraditional, adult learners and the institutions they attend.
  • Address non-tuition expenses, not just tuition and fee costs.
  • Ensure flexibility around applying for, qualifying for, and receiving funds.

The convening included many examples of states that are considering how to adjust their aid programs and policies to more effectively serve adult learners. These reforms align with the CLASP framework described above. For example, Minnesota is considering capping student contributions in its grant award formulas to account for more reasonable work or borrowing requirements; it is also considering an increase in funding for its childcare grant program. Indiana adjusted policy to allow state financial aid to pay for prior learning assessment charges, a move that may help adult learners shorten time to credential. Washington state is considering a micro-grant program to address existing financial holds or fines that prevent near completers from returning to their postsecondary institution.

While these examples are promising, much more needs to be done. The fact that the Satisfactory Academic Progress requirements to maintain aid eligibility cannot be reset may prevent many very capable adult learners from returning to college. Being in student loan default status may be even more problematic for these students. Perhaps most important, states need to make more adjustments to their aid programs to better serve adult learners in a time of finite, or even declining, state resources. Nationally, educational appropriations per student are down 15 percent (after adjusting for inflation)  from the pre-recession high point of 2008, and only five states are above where they were before the Great Recession hit. Some economists anticipate the next downturn to occur sooner than later.

If policymakers truly want to use state financial aid programs to increase adult learner success, they need to consider reallocating funding from other programs that address the needs of more traditional students — programs which are often very popular in states and among voters.

A tremendous amount of political will is required to make the tough choices to improve adult student success, which is so critical to meeting state attainment goals. 

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