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Many Adults Left Behind

June 2, 2008

As study after study, politician after politician, educator after educator all call for the United States to find ways to provide a college education to a larger share of the population, much of the emphasis of these exhortations is about low-income disadvantaged youth who may lose a shot at higher education because they lack funds and good high schools.

A new analysis of state policies and enrollment patterns, however, is trying to put more focus on adult learners. "Adult Learning in Focus," released Friday by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, prepared in collaboration with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, argues that many state policies may discourage those older than traditional college age from obtaining any higher education. This group of students, the report argues, is particularly in need of higher education to get good jobs, and these students' states depend on having more highly trained workers.

The report is a mix of data showing the large share of the adult population lacking any higher education degree, and information about various policies that might encourage more degree attainment. Of particular importance, the report notes, are policies that affect community colleges and part-time students, as adult students are more likely than their traditionally aged counterparts to enroll part time, and to enroll in two-year institutions.

In a legal sense, of course, college students who are 18 years and up are adults, so the definition of "adult student" is a key issue. Generally, the new report notes, the term is used to refer to those who are 25 and older, a group that makes up about 38 percent of all undergraduates in credit programs in the United States. But the report suggests that there are other students, younger in age, who may also deserve to be counted in this group. These are students who did not move directly from high school to college, enroll part time and/or while holding a full-time job, are financially independent of their parents, and who have dependents other than spouses.

At community colleges, adult students make up around 43 percent of the student body, a share that has been growing.

Despite the growing enrollments, the report suggests that many if not most adults who might benefit from higher education are not receiving any. Among the key statistics:

  • In 35 states, more than 60 percent of the population does not have an associate degree or any higher degree.
  • More than 32 million adults in the United States have never attended college and do not earn a living wage. Of these, 8 million speak little or no English.
  • Using data suggesting the share of the population that needs a college education for states to compete economically, 32 states will not be able to reach target goals educating only traditional age students.

The data in the report show that states vary widely in terms of the share of their adult populations that have a college degree, the relative cost of higher education and the availability of aid.

For instance, the percentage of adults aged 25-64 with at least an associate degree is as high as 49.2 percent (in Massachusetts) and as low as 25.0 percent (in West Virginia). The average for the United States is 37.2 percent.

Percentage of Adults Aged 25-64 With a College Degree

Rank State Percent
1 Massachusetts 49.2%
2 Connecticut 44.6%
3 Maryland 44.5%
4 New Hampshire 44.3%
5 (tie) Colorado 44.1%
5 (tie) Minnesota 44.1%
7 Vermont 44.0%
8 New Jersey 43.6%
9 Hawaii 43.3%
10 New York 42.9%
11 North Dakota 42.8%
12 Virginia 42.6%
13 Washington 42.3%
14 Rhode Island 40.6%
15 Nebraska 40.4%
16 Illinois 39.7%
17 Utah 39.5%
18 Kansas 38.9%
19 Montana 38.6%
20 South Dakota 38.5%
21 California 38.2%
22 (tie) Iowa 37.8%
22 (tie) Oregon 37.8%
24 Wisconsin 37.7%
25 Maine 37.1%
26 Delaware 37.0%
27 Pennsylvania 36.9%
28 Florida 36.7%
29 North Carolina 35.6%
30 (tie) Michigan 35.3%
30 (tie) Georgia 35.3%
32 Alaska 35.2%
33 Arizona 34.8%
34 New Mexico 34.3%
35 Idaho 34.1%
36 Wyoming 34.0%
37 Missouri 33.8%
38 Ohio 33.4%
39 (tie) South Carolina 32.7%
39 (tie) Texas 32.7%
41 Indiana 31.8%
42 Oklahoma 31.0%
43 Alabama 30.5%
44 Tennessee 29.9%
45 Kentucky 29.3%
46 Nevada 29.0%
47 Mississippi 28.4%
48 Louisiana 26.7%
49 Arkansas 26.1%
50 West Virginia 25.0%

As a means of identifying the availability of higher education to those adults most in need, the report ranks states on the share of median family income -- among the poorest adults aged 25-44 -- necessary to pay tuition and fees at a public community college. The national average is 7.0 percent.

Public 2-Year College Tuition and Fees as Percentage of Median Family Income for Poorest 40%

Rank State Percent
1 New Hampshire 15.0%
2 Vermont 14.5%
3 New York 12.3%
4 Minnesota 11.9%
5 (tie) Ohio 11.8%
5 (tie) South Carolina 11.8%
7 (tie) West Virginia 11.7%
7 (tie) Maine 11.7%
9 Alabama 11.4%
10 South Dakota 11.2%
11 (tie) Montana 10.7%
11 (tie) Iowa 10.7%
13 Pennsylvania 10.6%
14 (tie) Tennessee 10.1%
14 (tie) North Dakota 10.1%
16 Kentucky 9.9%
17 (tie) Oregon 9.8%
17 (tie) Oklahoma 9.8%
19 (tie) Wisconsin 9.1%
19 (tie) Indiana 9.1%
21 Massachusetts 9.0%
22 Washington 8.9%
23 Missouri 8.8%
24 Mississippi 8.5%
25 Michigan 8.1%
26 Maryland 7.9%
27 (tie) Delaware 7.7%
27 (tie) Alaska 7.7%
29 (tie) Connecticut 7.6%
29 (tie) New Jersey 7.6%
29 (tie) Arkansas 7.6%
32 Rhode Island 7.5%
33 Illinois 7.4%
34 (tie) Kansas 7.3%
34 (tie) Nebraska 7.3%
36 Florida 6.7%
37 (tie) Utah 6.6%
37 (tie) Virginia 6.6%
39 (tie) Colorado 6.5%
39 (tie) Idaho 6.5%
41 Wyoming 6.4%
42 (tie) Georgia 6.3%
42 (tie) Louisiana 6.3%
44 North Carolina 5.2%
45 New Mexico 5.1%
46 (tie) Texas 5.0%
46 (tie) Nevada 5.0%
48 Arizona 4.9%
49 Hawaii 3.4%
50 California 2.4%

Additionally, given the need for so many adult students to enroll part time, the report ranks states on the percentage of their need-based aid that goes to part-time students. States can make it easier or more difficult for part-time students to receive aid (with the report strongly advocating the former approach).

Percentage of Need-Based Aid Going to Part-Time Students

Rank State  
1 Minnesota 41.4%
2 New Mexico 30.0%
3 Nebraska 28.8%
4 Illinois 26.0%
5 Wyoming 25.0%
6 Arizona 21.5%
7 California 18.8%
8 Kentucky 17.0%
9 Florida 16.0%
10 Michigan 15.0%
11 Rhode Island 14.0%
12 Washington 13.0%
13 New Hampshire 11.7%
14 (tie) Colorado 11.0%
14 (tie) Vermont 11.0%
16 Massachusetts 9.0%
17 Virginia 8.0%
18 Oklahoma 7.1%
19 (tie) Alaska 7.0%
19 (tie) Connecticut 7.0%
19 (tie) Hawaii 7.0%
22 South Carolina 6.0%
23 (tie) Maine 5.0%
23 (tie) Montana 5.0%
23 (tie) Pennsylvania 5.0%
26 Maryland 4.5%
27 Tennessee 4.0%
28 (tie) Indiana 2.0%
28 (tie) Missouri 2.0%
28 (tie) New Jersey 2.0%
31 New York 1.5%
32 Arkansas 1.0%
Tied for last Oregon 0%
Tied for last Alabama 0%
Tied for last Delaware 0%
Tied for last Georgia 0%
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Tied for last West Virginia 0%
Tied for last Wisconsin 0%

 

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