Adult college promise programs, which generally offer free tuition or other financial support, are being piloted and implemented in Indiana, Maine, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Washington with the support of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) and the Lumina Foundation in an effort to boost graduation rates among adult learners.
Though such "free college" efforts have generally been restricted to traditional-age students, SHEEO stated in a recent report that they can be a critical component in increasing enrollment and graduation rates for adult students if they are targeted well and include additional support and services.
These programs should be tailored to address the unique challenges adult learners face by promoting postsecondary education as affordable, offering financial support from all available sources and customizing programs and services that meet the needs of those over 25, many of whom have full-time jobs, families and limited eligibility for federal grants.
The bulk of promise programs so far target traditional-age students for several reasons, the report notes. Among them, doing so makes program costs more predictable, many groups outside higher education are not aware of the large number of adult students and because it can be easier to find high schoolers and connect them with information about college. However, with students older than 25 accounting for 40% of undergraduates, more states are exploring promise programs tuned to their specific workforce needs.
Successful promise programs for traditional-age students may have components that make them unsuitable for adult learners, the report notes. The Tennessee Promise Program, for example, fills in the gaps for high school graduates' unmet financial needs if they meet with a mentor, maintain a certain GPA and complete community service. Adult students may have work and family obligations that make time commitments such as performing community service a barrier to participating in a program. To address the different needs of adult learners, Tennessee developed a separate promise plan for nontraditional students in 2017, dubbed TNReconnect, focused on veterans and service members, those returning to college and those attending college for the first time.
Adult promise programs are seen as way to help close the gap between the number of skilled workers and employer demand for them. In addition to state-level programs, individual institutions are also getting on board.
Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC), for example, announced a promise program in May for adults who started college but didn't finish. To be eligible for the MATC Promise for Adults program, students must be at least 24 and living in the area, earn $56,000 or less annually and have been out of college for two years or more. The donor-funded program is an expansion of a promise program launched in 2015 for high school students.
SHEEO emphasizes additional support and services are necessary in promise programs oriented toward adult learners. Efforts should be focused on recruiting potential students with a simple and clear message, implementing structured scheduling to reduce the time to earn a credential, and offering emergency financial support to students who face unexpected expenses that could lead to them dropping out.