Why Need-Based Aid Matters for Adults

Postsecondary & Workforce

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This blog post is a guest post by Wayne A. Taliaferro,  Policy Analyst, Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success at CLASP.

Changing national and student demographics require new approaches to meet student needs, and an ever-changing economy has shifted the requirements for success in the workforce. States are coming to understand this more than anyone, as skill gaps, which are largely predicated on degree and credential attainment gaps, continue to persist. To combat the issue, states have set ambitious postsecondary completion targets, largely focused on strengthening K-12 to postsecondary completion pipelines. However, even in states with the lowest targets, it is numerically impossible to meet these goals and serve state needs simply by focusing on the population of traditional high school graduates. Likewise, it is even more marginalizing towards students who are not a part of this population to gear financial aid policies towards traditional high school graduates without considering the often unintended tradeoff of inaccessibility to adult students, especially adult students with the greatest financial needs. 

Around 40 percent of postsecondary students are older than 25 years-old, and the vast majority of those students are independent. Although not all of these students experience financial need barriers in their efforts to access postsecondary education, close to half (45 percent Pell-recipients)[i] of them do. These students are also largely enrolled at varying degrees of enrollment intensity at open-access institutions where students with need are even more heavily concentrated. An analysis of unmet need among low-income students found that independent, low-income students at public community colleges, have an average unmet need gap of $7,734 for a full-time student and $3,559 for a part-time student. That means that after all non-repayable aid and discounts, these students still have to find a way to pay for these remaining costs – costs that go far beyond tuition and fees to include living expenses, which often go unrecognized as part of the real price of college.

Significant shares of these students are also working, raising families, and are perhaps the first person in their families to attend college, which typically means they had fewer opportunities and limited resources prior to enrolling. Yet, many states are still prioritizing funding for merit-based aid programs for traditional high school graduates, which preferences middle and upper-income students. And in some cases, states are excluding adults from aid eligibility altogether.

These numbers tell a different story than most mainstream affordability and access narratives, which tends to focus on the costs and debt burdens on traditional college students and their families.  However, the challenge does not end there, and states have a tremendous opportunity to pivot their thinking and policies on these issues with nontraditional adult students in mind. By reframing need-based aid policy with a more comprehensive understanding of these students and their needs, states can better realize the potential of their citizens, their economy and their workforce. 

[i] Author’s analysis using NCES PowerStats, Source “2011-2012 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS, 12),” U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, calculated 3/9/2017

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