Adult Promise: Interactive Brief

Supporting Adult Learners from Enrollment to Completion: Models and Insights from Adult Promise States

Authors: Kara Conroy and Julie Bruch

This interactive page explores Adult Promise initiatives that support adult learners as they re-enroll in college and complete credentials.

Using the tabs below, explore:

  • A map of Adult Promise states and an overview of state initiatives
  • Insights from Adult Promise presented as a series of questions and answers to consider when funding, designing, implementing, and sustaining similar comprehensive, equity-focused adult attainment initiatives
  • Additional resources about the experiences of Adult Promise states
  • What is Adult Promise?

    Lumina Foundation seeks to increase the proportion of Americans who hold a postsecondary credential to 60 percent by 2025, across all racial, ethnic, immigration, and income groups.

    Lumina launched the Adult Promise initiative in 2017 and made multiyear grants to a total of 15 states to address adult postsecondary attainment. Across the states, Adult Promise built upon or dovetailed with larger state efforts and most included (1) outreach and recruitment, (2) student services, and (3) financial supports, all tailored for adult learners and typically with a focus on underserved groups.

    Additional Resources about Adult Promise

    What is the Adult Promise Evaluation?

    The Adult Promise evaluation aimed to learn about the design and implementation of Adult Promise state initiatives. The evaluation followed 11 states from the 2017 and 2018 grant waves throughout their respective grant periods. Findings come from more than three years of interviews, focus groups, and surveys with state program leaders as well as with administrators, faculty, and students at post-secondary institutions.

    Where can you learn more about Adult Promise?

    Insights for Adult Attainment Initiatives

    This section provides answers to commonly asked questions to consider when funding, designing, implementing, and sustaining comprehensive, equity-focused adult attainment initiatives. Click the button to view the answer and some examples.

    Outreach and recruitment

    How can states find and reach a diverse and dispersed adult learner population?

    Seek input directly from adult learners. Adult learners can be harder to reach than students of traditional college age.

    • Adult Promise states conducted focus groups, listening sessions, and surveys.
    • Some states, including California, Oregon and Oklahoma, explicitly included adult learners of color in these activities.
    • This allowed states to better understand adult learners’ barriers to enrollment.

    Tailor outreach materials to the needs of adult learners. It is it critical to get the messaging right when engaging adult learners.

    • Stakeholders identified digital advertising (such as emails, websites, blogs, and social media) that targets specific audiences is the most effective approach.
    • States crafted marketing materials to respond to adult learners’ lives, interests, priorities, and needs.

    Click here for more details on reaching adult learners in the full report.

    What tools and supports can facilitate adults’ application and enrollment?

    Whether tech-based or traditional, tools make enrollment convenient and efficient. Most adult learners are very busy and do not have time for complex or lengthy application and enrollment processes.

    • Online tools to help streamline application and enrollment process, and help learners and advisors identify the best path to obtaining a credential.
    • In-person recruitment events held on evenings and weekends accommodate adults’ typical work schedules.

    Navigators or ambassadors offer a powerful way to support adult engagement. Either at the state or institution level, navigators:

    • Guide students through the enrollment and financial aid process
    • Connect them to other support resources
    • Serve as a coach when students enroll

    Some states used more informal channels to engage students through “ambassadors” who are community members with close ties to the populations that institutions are trying to engage.

    More than 70 percent of partner institutions surveyed noted that providing navigation and enrollment assistance services for adults was one of the most effective tools for getting prospective adult learners to enroll.

    Click here for more details on tools to facilitate adult learner enrollment in the full report.

    Support for adult students

    What should states know about adult learners to help them succeed?

    Adult learners are intrinsically motivated. The professional and financial benefits of additional schooling motivate many adults, yet their desire to learn often serves as their intrinsic motivation.

    They balance opportunity costs with potential labor market benefits. Adult learners have personal and financial commitments that constrain how they think about higher education. These may include:

    • A job
    • Family
    • Housing
    • Car payments
    • Other debt, whether from education or other source

    At the same time, adults realize the potential financial and emotional returns of additional schooling, including career advancement and greater job satisfaction.

    Some adults struggle with internal, emotional barriers. Adult students can fear repeating negative earlier experiences in higher education, which may have been marked by unsupportive instructors or advisors. Some adult learners reported feeling isolated and out of place because of their age . Such insecurity can affect their confidence and willingness to engage.

    Click here for more details on who adult learners are in the full report.

    What supports are needed to ensure adult student success?

    Provide evening, weekend, and hybrid courses. Adult learners value flexibility in course offerings.More than 70 percent of partner institutions surveyed noted that providing online or blended classes was one of the most effective ways to support adult student success. At the same time, flexibility—especially when it involves online platforms—can have drawbacks:

    • Some adult learners lack the digital literacy necessary to navigate online education without intensive supports
    • Some learners felt the courses required more discipline to work independently and stay on task
    • Learners missed in-person interactions with classmates, and online platforms and software did not always support smooth virtual interactions with instructors and peers

    Adult students value understanding and individualized support from staff and faculty. Most students, regardless of their age, appreciate when professors know them and treat them as individuals. Adults, however, place special value on faculty and staff who recognize that they have competing priorities or special needs, without singling them out.

    Click here for more details on supporting adult learners in the full report.

    Financial assistance

    How can states ensure adequate, sustainable funding for adults?

    Leverage available state and federal aid design initiatives to complement these resources. States can both provide aid and serve as a coordinator to help institutions and individuals leverage funding from different sources.

    States emphasized public sources and sought to maximize students’ access to them. Although some states were able to rely on a single funding source for adult students, many pieced together funding packages from several sources, often using private sources to fill in gaps from public sources.

    Click here for more details on ensuring adquate and sustainable funding for adults in the full report.

    Beyond scholarships and grants, what aid strategies can serve adult students’ needs?

    Braid funding from different sources to address different types of costs. States braided foundation support, employer scholarships, and other private sources to meet students’ needs beyond the costs of education.

    Consider smaller amounts that can bridge gaps. Although microgrants typically provide less than $500, they can go a long way to help students with unexpected or otherwise hard-to-address costs that could pose barriers to entry or reenrollment.

    Minimize barriers by having broad eligibility criteria for aid and low-effort application processes. Financial aid with separate applications or renewal applications can have limited uptake when compared to other programs with similar eligibility criteria that require only completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

    Click here for more details on aid strategies in the full report.

    Equity considerations

    What organizational steps can states take to better reach and support underrepresented and underserved groups?

    Hire and train staff to engage communities of color. Some states trained staff at the state or institutional level to address diversity, equity, and inclusion issues. Other states hired staff or volunteers with membership in or close associations with communities of color. Adult Promise leaders described such “boots on the ground” as pivotal to connecting with and supporting adult learners from communities of color.

    Build and grow credible partnerships in these communities. Adult Promise grantees typically comprise small state-level teams aiming to reach adult learners statewide, so local partnerships play an important role in outreach and support. Partnerships can be even more important for achieving equity goals because some communities of color have historically been excluded—and, in some cases, alienated—from postsecondary education. More than 50 percent of institutions reported that the lack of diverse networks and partners posed challenges when addressing equity issues.

    Click here for more details on reaching and supporting underrepresented and underserved groups in the full report.

    How can states and institutions use data to guide their efforts to address equity gaps?

    Disaggregate data to better understand equity gaps. Ideally, this involves looking beyond obvious distinctions—for example, comparing Black and White students’ outcomes—and drilling down to relevant issues for a given state.

    Use data to inform outreach activities and eligibility cutoffs. States can use demographic data and historic postsecondary data to make sure that outreach and enrollment activities do not inadvertently exclude adult learners of color. For example, by focusing on adults with a certain number of prior credits, a state might exclude many students from underserved communities that did not have adequate access to education in the past.

    Click here for more details on using data to address equity gaps in the full report.

    How can states and institutions identify barriers and leverage supports for adult learners of color in the broader system?

    Identify and address barriers that have an outsized impact on adult students of color. Several Adult Promise states revamped institutional or state policies to ensure greater equity in financial aid and to meet the needs of adult students of color.

    Connect adult students of color to targeted funding. In a few Adult Promise states, financial aid options target underrepresented and underserved groups. Foundations or other private partners with a special interest in supporting certain communities typically provide such targeted supports.

    Click here for more details on identifying barriers and leveraging supports for adult learners of color in the full report.

    How can states hold themselves and their partners accountable for shared equity goals?

    Set and track clear, measurable, and relevant equity goals. Some Adult Promise states link attainment and equity goals to state performance funding policies, and allocation of financial resources depend on institutions’ progress toward state goals. However, in some cases, the performance funding framework does not define groups at a sufficiently granular level for institutions or other stakeholders to use in their own settings. Goals need to account for a state’s specific subpopulations.

    After examining the data, some states developed specific equity goals for their Adult Promise program or related completion initiatives, which vary by region or institution. Ultimately, states or localities should define target populations and set specific attainment goals that make sense in context and avoid exacerbating current inequities.

    Click here for more details on setting and tracking equity goals in the full report.

    Map: Adult Promise Initiatives by State

    This map includes information on the 11 states that participated in the Adult Promise evaluation. Use the dropdown menu below to find out more about which states’ Adult Promise initiatives share common features. You can click on a specific state to see its full Adult Promise profile in the table to the right of the map.

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    The authors wish to thank the following colleagues for their contributions to this project: Andrés Nigenda Zárate, Dan Thal, Kerry Schellenberger, Dallas Dotter, Ann Person, Lisbeth Goble, Ashley Hong, Veronica Severn and Barbara Singhakiat.