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States are often called the laboratories of democracy for their ability to experiment in areas of policy and practice. Ideally, their most successful initiatives bubble to the top to be adapted by other states or even the entire nation. There’s no shortage of examples: Massachusetts’ health-care system inspired the Affordable Care Act, and laws banning texting while driving, now in place in 48 states, were first implemented in Washington. Today, states are also leading the way in experimenting with policies and programs to help adults return to or start postsecondary education to improve their employment and earnings prospects.

New efforts in adult financial aid programs come at least partially in response to increased recognition that the country’s economic goals cannot be achieved solely through focusing on recent high school graduates. In order to close equity gaps and increase economic productivity and opportunity, state policy makers are realizing quickly that adults who are underemployed or unemployed must be included in postsecondary education and training initiatives.

It’s no surprise that affordability is at the core of the various states’ solutions. Research conducted by my organization, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, has found that affordability is a key issue for adult learners and that financial factors often are central to enrollment decisions. Indeed, a survey conducted by Strada Education Foundation’s Center for Education Consumer Insights found the cost of tuition, books and other expenses was the most common challenge cited by adults over the age of 24 in pursuing education or training. There are a variety of ways states are attempting to address this challenge through public policy.

States Are Innovating Ways to Fill Affordability Gaps

One of the best-known forms of need-based financial aid is the Pell Grant, which is a federal entitlement program. However, the Pell Grant is capped at a certain amount per year (currently $6,895 per student) and cannot be used for more than 12 full-time or equivalent terms over an individual’s lifetime. There have been changes to the Pell Grant over the last few years, including increasing the value and the upcoming reinstatement of Pell for incarcerated students. In addition, several proposals have been floated at the federal level to make short-term job-focused training programs eligible for Pell funding. Still, as CAEL members often report, many low-income students need financial support beyond the Pell Grant to access and succeed in a postsecondary program. This is especially true of adults who may be balancing education with supporting a family. This is where states are stepping in to offer additional financial relief to students.

Financial aid programs that specifically target adults are growing across the country. In 2017, Tennessee launched Tennessee Reconnect, a “last-dollar” financial aid program for adults attending community college. The program, which covers the remaining balance of tuition and mandatory fees at a Tennessee community college after other state and federal aid is applied, is funded with earnings from the state lottery. In its first year, more than 40,000 people applied, and more than 18,000 enrolled and received funding. There were also implications for equity, with more Reconnect applicants and recipients being Black or women in comparison to their proportional representation in the state.

Other states have since implemented similar programs, most notably Michigan, which now provides last-dollar aid for adults aged 25 and above enrolling in community colleges. Massachusetts governor Maura Healey has recently proposed funding MassReconnect, a similar program.

Lessons continue to emerge from Tennessee’s effort, as a 2022 evaluation of the program reported mixed results. The review found declining enrollment since the program’s launch in 2018 (a nationwide trend, partially due to COVID-19), but also found that Reconnect grant recipients earned associate degrees within two years at a slightly higher rate than students who did not receive a grant. Unfortunately, however, completion rates were lower for Black and Hispanic Reconnect students. As with any new program, continued evaluation and associated changes in implementation are important to future success.

While these various Reconnect programs are arguably the most broad and inclusive, there are other, more targeted ways that states are supporting adults financially in their education and training journeys. Some have started programs that make short-term education and training for specific in-demand jobs or sectors free or low cost.

For example, Virginia’s FastForward program makes certain short-term credentials in high-demand fields available to students for one-third of the cost. The commonwealth pays for an additional third. If the student earns the credential, the commonwealth will pay the final installment. If the student doesn’t finish the program, they must pay the remaining third.

Thus far, participants in the FastForward program, who have an average age of 34, have seen a 55 percent average increase in their wages (equating to $11,626). In addition, and bucking prevailing postsecondary enrollment trends, the program saw an enrollment increase of more than 40 percent between fall 2020 and fall 2021.

Other programs, like the Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship, provide last-dollar aid to students pursuing an in-demand credential or associate degree. For example, qualifying areas of study for the 2022–23 academic year included health care, advanced manufacturing, transportation and logistics, business services and information technology, and construction.

Other states, like California, are tackling the affordability issue by closing loopholes that have allowed colleges to reduce the amount of institutional aid they provide if a student is receiving a scholarship from an outside source, such as a private foundation, an employer, etc. While a 2022 California law banning “scholarship displacement” targets recently graduated high school students benefiting from outside merit-based scholarships, it can also affect adults receiving similar scholarships or employer-based aid.

Another way states can help more people access financial aid is through a federal program called Ability to Benefit. To access the Pell Grant, students usually must have already received a high school diploma or equivalent, such as a general education development (G.E.D.) certificate. Ability to Benefit helps adult students without a high school diploma or equivalent access federal financial aid after they’ve shown their ability to succeed in postsecondary education. While the U.S. Department of Education outlines ways in which students can prove their “ability to benefit,” such as by passing a test approved by the secretary, states can also create their own avenues through which students without a high school diploma or equivalent can access the Pell Grant. (These state-defined avenues must be approved by the U.S. Department of Education.)

For example, Washington State created a new Ability to Benefit process that allows students to qualify for federal aid by enrolling simultaneously in an integrated basic education and skills training program and a competency-based high school–plus program. They also aligned eligibility for the Washington College Grant to these same benchmarks, so these students can also start accessing the state’s need-based financial aid program.

Recognizing that unexpected changes in financial circumstances can derail students at any time, even when they are close to completing a program of study, has motivated some states to implement emergency fund programs. One example is the Completers Grant in Louisiana. The grant provides financial aid to students who are near completion in any degree program, including associate degrees or a “credential of value” program as identified by the Louisiana Workforce Commission. Unfortunately, this grant, which was paid for through Governor’s Emergency Education Relief funds, expires this year. However, depending on the results of the program, this type of short-term pilot can be influential in launching more permanent funding streams.

Similarly, in Florida all 28 colleges have signed on to support the Last Mile College Completion Program, a scholarship program that helps students who left college with 12 or fewer credit hours remaining to complete their first associate or baccalaureate degree.

It must be noted that recent research found that degree-completion grants did little to increase completion rates and may mostly be targeting students who were already likely to finish their program of study. Commentary has since suggested that differences in how these grants are implemented—much like any program—likely affect their outcomes. Regardless, the research provides something to consider for other states or institutions weighing these programs and how they can tailor them to make the greatest difference.

Affordability Goes Beyond Tuition Assistance

Other policies beyond financial aid can also make a huge difference in affordability. I’m thinking, for example, of state policies that promote apprenticeships, where students earn a wage and learn new skills at the same time. Such “earn-and-learn” opportunities reduce or eliminate the need for them to take on debt or work a less relevant job during training.

States are also coming up with creative ways to fund necessary support services for student needs such as childcare and transportation through new or existing funding streams such as their SNAP Employment and Training (E&T) programs. For example, CAEL recently launched a new initiative to engage at least 80 community colleges in starting or expanding their SNAP E&T partnerships.

This is certainly not an exhaustive list of innovative or promising practices to increase college affordability for adult students across the country. However, the wide range of options states are devising should inspire practitioners and policy makers at every level of government to consider the best ways to support their adult residents in pursuing postsecondary education and training.

Rachel Hirsch is vice president of state strategies and policy relations at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, a division of Strada Collaborative Inc.

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