Colleges, close the skills gap by opening doors to adult learners

American businesses blame a “skills gap” for dragging down the nation’s competitiveness. U.S. companies say they can’t find enough qualified workers, thereby leaving millions of well-paying jobs unfilled. Meanwhile, workers without the right skills lose the chance to raise their wages and move ahead in their careers, thereby compounding the economic anxieties of the middle class.

Manufacturers say they expect their industry to create three million jobs by 2025, but as many as two million of these openings will go begging because of shortages in the kinds of highly-skilled, highly educated workers that advanced American manufacturing now demands. 

One reason this skills gap exists is the utter failure of the nation’s higher education system to help workers who might be best suited for companies’ needs: adult learners. Today’s higher education system is singularly focused on young people graduating from high school. In today’s fast-moving economy, it is folly to believe that one’s educational journey should begin at 18 and end at 22. 

{mosads}It took less than a generation for the internet to transform the economic and social fabric of the world, birthing entirely new disciplines in such fields as information technology, logistics, robotics and computer science. Today’s higher education system reserves opportunities for the young, and then dooms them to future obsolescence by denying their return as older workers as the need for skills and knowledge shift. It’s not only inefficient but unfair. And it’s bad for the economy. 

A few schools, however, are ahead of the curve in catering to adult learners. This is why the Washington Monthly launched the nation’s first-ever ranking of the best two- and four-year institutions for adult learners. The rankings look at factors that matter most to older students, such as the flexibility of programs, the availability of services tailored to adult learners, earnings after graduation and the ease of transferring credits. 

Innovators in this space are two-year schools like top-ranked Weber State University in Utah, where 30 percent of students are over 25 and alumni earn an impressive $51,148 on average 10 years after graduation. At Golden Gate University in San Francisco, which takes the top prize among four-year institutions, a whopping 89 percent of students are over 25, and mean earnings are an even more striking $74,332.

Like Weber State and Golden Gate, most of the best schools for adult learners are either regional public or smaller private non-profit institutions attuned to the needs of their communities and local economies. 

Many more colleges should be following the lead of these schools. 

The demand is there. Forty percent of the nation’s college students are over the age of 25. But these students are fast becoming the new norm. Some are on a slower track toward earning their degrees, forced by high tuition costs or family obligations to juggle work and school. Many others are looking to refresh their skills, change their careers or pick up where they left off when life intervened in their education.

There isn’t any reason to believe that older students are less dedicated than the 18-year-olds. If anything, older students likely have more discipline, focus and desire to succeed.  A 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 55 percent of Americans see “training/skills development throughout their work life” as “essential.”

Colleges face future declines in undergraduate enrollment after the massive millennial generation passes through; recruiting and catering to adult students might be the best strategy for survival. Less selective colleges that now struggle to fill their freshmen classes could find that challenge much easier if they open their doors to older students with potential.  

An expanded focus on adult learners would help America’s higher education system regain both relevance and public trust. Polls show that the American public has become increasingly skeptical of whether the benefits of a college degree are worth the cost.  These criticisms might be well justified. The nation’s colleges aren’t just failing to deliver the education that students want or need to succeed, they are failing to deliver it to the students who might benefit the most. 

By giving as much primacy to students who are 30 as they do to those who are 18, America’s colleges would not only do right by their students, but by themselves and the American economy.  

Paul Glastris and Anne Kim are, respectively, Editor in Chief and Senior Writer at the Washington Monthly


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