Report highlights challenges for low-income working students
- Failures in policy and inadequate options in higher education and the job market have created a "shameful state of affairs" for low-income working students that keeps them stuck in a cycle of low wages and limited opportunities, according to a new report from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.
- The report notes that 43% of working students are low income, a group that is much more likely to enroll in a certificate program or attend a two-year or for-profit college but less likely to graduate. This too often means they are shut out of raising their economic status.
- An expensive and inequitable education system and a labor market with insufficient high-quality job opportunities together contribute to these students working more than ever but struggling to get ahead, the report states.
Tailored approaches are required to attract and accommodate adult learners, especially those with low incomes, who are too often treated as if they are, in one researcher's words, "invisible to higher education."
A report released this spring from the nonprofit Public Agenda recommends colleges give more attention to this group, and experts have spelled out strategies to effectively recruit and retain them. They include: gathering good data to understand their specific needs, recruiting them in new ways and via media suited to their tastes and lifestyles, and providing them accurate and clear information that is easy to access.
To retain them — a considerable challenge — colleges should provide services they might specifically need, such as child care and schedule flexibility, as well as financial support. Credit for previous work and life experience are also important because, along with other stumbling blocks, the frustration and expense of repeating coursework often causes them to drop out.
College programs should be better aligned with the needs of the job market and offer up-to-date curriculum for the positions available, experts say. But employers also should be more willing to hire high-achieving, hard-working adult students and then help them learn the specific skills they need.
This disparity can be linked to the well-document K-12 achievement gap. According to recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 90% of 9th graders who were in the highest socioeconomic level moved on to college while only 56% of those in the lowest level did. Considering income disparities among (as well as within) individual schools, the difference in students matriculating on to college is a likely contributor to the number of low-income individuals attending as adults. These adult learners lack the financial support that their higher-income peers have, which impacts their ability to finance and complete a program.
- Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce Balancing work and learning: Implications for low-income students