State legislatures hoping to create legislation around "near-completers" — or former students who had some college credit without a form of certification or degree — may see more success by working directly with the higher ed institutions in their state, according to a new policy report by Education Commission for the States, which looked at the progress of legislation and initiatives in the area.
Legislative action without buy-in from higher ed institutions may be ineffective
The report examined pieces of legislation that had been enacted or introduced this year, as well as several successful case studies of states that established new programs for these students. Report author Lexi Anderson, a senior policy analyst with the commission, said much of the legislation introduced in 2017 centered on affordability issues. She said a consistent hurdle for states is they often need a champion for near-completers, in the form of a governor or other prominent figure, to help garner interest from institutions, policymakers, and the community at large.
“If you don’t have that buy-in, it’s really hard to get that momentum,” she said. “A lot of what they’re hoping is that institutions will have that buy-in that these students are worth reaching back out to. This may be a mindset you have to change in some cases.”
According to the report, more than 31 million adults in the country fall under the category of near-completers, and states understand it will be difficult to reach ambitious workforce goals if colleges and universities do not serve adult and other non-traditional learners. The report cited research from the Lumina Foundation, which found that of the 16.4 million credentialed learners needed to keep pace with workforce demands by 2025, more than one-third would need to be near-completers.
“We’re getting more research. A lot of institutions are starting to see writing on the wall, and states are certainly seeing it,” Anderson said, who said the breadth of data available had actually made the workforce gaps clearer — and starker — to states and higher ed institutions than they have been in the past.
“They didn’t have a previous chance to see these gaps. The better the data gets, the better we can share that data … the better we can know the students, the better we can assist them.”
Industry stakeholders can look to states with solid higher ed partnerships
States throughout the country have been introducing partnerships with higher ed institutions to address workforce disparities and gaps, such as Rhode Island’s support for a program between the University of Rhode Island and members of the state’s commercial fisheries industry.
Anderson’s report highlights states, which have succeeded in producing programs or initiatives to assist near-completers, such as in Tennessee, where Gov. Bill Halsam signed a last-dollar scholarship program helping adults attend community college tuition-free this year. This has been critical, as the report shows Tennessee needs approximately 220,000 adults to attain degrees in order to meet workforce demand goals.
“Tennessee is all in. They understand it, they get it; they understand the gaps and understand what they need to fill, and they’re going full force. Other states are not necessarily going to start from that point; they have to start from ground zero, to say that near-completers are not quitters,” Anderson said.
“Just thinking about the workforce needs every state has, we can’t just do that with traditional age students just coming out of high schools.”
Anderson acknowledged many of the higher ed institutions which are seeing the most success in working with near-completers and non-traditional students are community colleges, particularly those that had been working with these types of students for some time. She says she hopes two-and-four year institutions would work together in terms of sharing data, so states and higher ed institutions would have a better chance of finding and encouraging other near-completers.
She pointed to the use of the College Match website in states like Indiana or Mississippi, saying college could be much more attractive for near-completers if they were not mandated to return to their original institution. They may find a better educational fit elsewhere, or may find another college or university which betters suits their professional and personal goals.
“We’re all in this together in the state, and it’s not about the needs of each institution,” Anderson said, detailing the hopes among state legislatures that the promotion of near-completers would be a communal effort.