Adult students are diverse in race, ethnicity, gender, age, level of formal education and cause for their education being interrupted. For example, Ruth Wilmore is a single mom who worked 26 years as a machine operator making children’s clothes until the company moved overseas; Maria Blanco from Colombia is studying to reclaim her career as a social worker; Melissa Woodrow is a young mom seeking to complete her education to be a better role model and provider; Vania Estanek is now in college and is a peer mentor to Guerda Fevrier from Haiti; Adam Sennott is a GED and college graduate and now a freelance reporter; and David Kabanda is a refugee from the Congo whom a college transition program helped access and succeed in college so he can make a new life for himself and his family.

Against the odds

Adult learners are resilient though their path to further education is typically fraught with obstacles. They resourcefully juggle many responsibilities on low incomes. Many have jobs where schedules change without notice, making regular school attendance challenging. Friends and family tend to be their only safety net when the car breaks down or the child care arrangement falls through.

Statistically, the odds are against them: Students with work, family and financial obligations are twice as likely to drop out of school in their first year as students fresh out of high school — 38 percent compared to 16 percent. If they attend part-time, as most do, their chances are reduced to one in four to make it to graduation — while taking twice as long to complete college.

"Adults cannot waste time or money training for jobs that are not there when they graduate or jobs for which they lack the aptitude."

Attainable alternatives

Adults know education is a path forward. They don’t necessarily know about viable career options or what it takes to train for those careers. They may not have anyone in their family with a college degree. They do not know about a whole host of factors that either make or break their educational path to a family-sustaining job.

Adults cannot waste time or money training for jobs that are not there when they graduate or jobs for which they lack the aptitude. For example, many adult learners have nursing as a goal, but they have not been exposed to various other health care career options that may be more attainable. Career awareness and planning should be part of every student’s preparation for college.

Of the tremendous hurdles adult learners face, there are many that adult education programs and colleges can address. We must strengthen adults’ academic skills to get adults directly into credit-bearing classes or high-quality, technical training programs. We must teach effective study skills so adults learn how to learn. Surveys indicate that most students think they are ready for college, but 68 percent of community college students are required to take at least one remedial class. With every remedial class students take, their chances of completing a credential decrease exponentially.

You belong here

College readiness is not just about academic skills. Navigating admissions, financial aid and course selection involves acquired know-how. So does understanding that dropping out of a college class or receiving a poor grade can jeopardize financial aid and the college trajectory. 

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for college success is what we call personal readiness. Adult students need to get their lives and psyche ready for college. Carving out the time and support system is no small feat. College readiness will be for naught if a voice inside keeps saying, “I’m not college material. I don’t belong here.” Instructors and mentors must guide the quieting of this voice by fostering, “I am a learner — I belong here.”

It’s in our self-interest to do better than meeting the educational needs of only five percent of low-skilled adults. Employers need to invest in upgrading front-line workers’ skills. More than 80 percent of the projected 2026 workforce is already out of school and working. If we don’t invest in adult education, the United States will keep falling further behind countries that know their prosperity and competitiveness depend on educating adults as well as children.