There are 18 million undergraduates attending U.S. colleges and universities, but a surprisingly small portion of them fall into the category of “traditional” students: just 27 percent are fresh out of high school and studying full-time at a four-year school. Yet that’s where the national focus is, and that’s a problem. The vast majority of undergrads are older, taking longer to finish, working more and seeking credentials to help them get or retain a job. Many of them are juggling the very real demands of work and family and struggle to find the time and energy to devote to education.
By 2018, 63 percent of all jobs will require at least some postsecondary education, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. This is why policy makers need to start focusing on adult education: some 34 million Americans started college but didn’t complete their degree. Another 62 million have a high school diploma but never went to college.
Already a number of promising practices are being undertaken by colleges, universities and other partners to help reduce the time and cost of postsecondary education. For instance, the University of Wisconsin is adopting a first-in-the-nation “Flexible Degree” geared to meet the needs of working or unemployed adults who want to earn a college diploma. More competency-based programs could help military veterans and displaced workers get their degrees faster. These and other adult learners should be able to earn credit for what they can show they already know.
Another potential solution are massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which harness the power of the Internet to provide students across the country and around the world with access to a high-quality education on their timetable.
The entire higher education community must come together to formulate a national adult-education agenda that is cohesive yet nimble enough to address the diverse needs of millions of adult learners, non-traditional students who have become the norm.
Broad is president of the American Council on Education and former president of the University of North Carolina.