Bruce Chaloux, director of student access programs and services for the Southern Regional Education Board, says colleges in his region have long missed out on a key demographic. By his group's count, 20 million 25- to 55-year-olds in 16 southern states have enrolled at a college but left without a degree.
"Some institutions have reached out to them, but it hasn't been a broad effort," Chaloux said. "We're making the argument that this is your work force, and you need to craft programs that allow adults to complete their degrees."
The SREB has initially focused its attention on one state and hopes to replicate that effort elsewhere. Working with the Louisiana Board of Regents and an education consortium, the group is promoting "Continuum For All Louisiana Learners  (CALL)" to try to improve access to higher education for older students, and to help colleges boost their enrollment numbers. Chaloux and others are calling on institutions to create short, online courses, and to consider giving credit to older students for work and life experiences.
In Kentucky, the state's main agency that seeks to improve higher education access is trying out a grant program that, in the pilot year, took aim at students who had never taken a college course. By subsidizing the students' first few credit hours, the idea is that they will continue to take classes until earning an associate or bachelor's degree.
These efforts, replicated in various forms across the country, represent attempts by states and education groups to focus on a growing base of "nontraditional" students that will be central to colleges' academic planning and economic well-being for years to come, according to Sean Gallagher, director of the continuing and professional education learning collaborative at the research and consulting group Eduventures .
Ever since the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education  underscored the importance of improving job training and increasing the number of college graduates, adult students have received more attention from policy makers -- particularly as the economy has soured, Gallagher said.
And while data  point to an expected moderate decline in the number of graduates and traditional-age college applicants over all, and heftier declines in some states and regions, the pool of people in their 30s who are without a degree will remain high, according to Gallagher.
In Louisiana, Compressing Courses
When Chaloux makes his pitch to Louisiana policy makers and college leaders, he emphasizes demographics. "If the traditional-age pie is being reduced, one way to buoy against it is to pay attention to the 20-million strong adult population," he said.
In Louisiana, dozens of students have already begun taking compressed online courses that cover material found in, say, a 16-week course in eight or nine weeks of more intense instruction. The thinking, Chaloux said, is that students working toward a degree and working a job are often unable to commit to a long time frame.
Bossier Parish Community College and Northwestern State University were the first to reshape entire degree programs for the initiative. The institutions, and others in the midst of planning changes, are focusing largely on high-need areas such as nursing and criminal justice.
One of the main selling points for students is the ability to earn credit for life experiences. What initiative leaders call "prior learning assessment" amounts to faculty members in a given discipline taking into consideration whether skills someone used in a job should allow them to place out of certain courses.
For instance, Chaloux said, if a would-be student went through military training relating to police or criminal justice work, that could mean placing out of criminal justice classes. "In some fashion, we're recognizing that a 45-year-old working at a bank for many years may have creditable, demonstrative knowledge," Chaloux said.
In some cases, a college would allow the student to take the course final without sitting through the class to prove her knowledge. Chaloux said most institutions would still require at least one quarter of taking classes in the degree program for a student to earn a diploma.
At least eight degree programs at two- and four-year colleges in Louisiana are expected to be offered this fall entirely online and with the adult student in mind. Chaloux said the institutions are extending academic advising hours into the evening and putting more information about financial aid online to serve the older students.
Gallagher, of Eduventures, said his group's research shows that adult students want more flexibility in financial aid options. The common complaint is that aid packages typically are assembled for full-time, traditional-age students.
Those behind Kentucky's "Go Higher Grant " program are still considering how to best offer financial help to students 24 or older who have a financial need and are enrolled part-time. In this pilot year, administrators looked for students with no previous college experience and awarded a maximum $1,000 award toward tuition plus a book allowance of $50 per credit hour.
Becky Gilpatrick, student aid branch manager for the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority, which administers the grants, said only about a quarter of those who applied for the grants (58 students) ended up receiving the money, which she said was too low a ratio. (The group has leftover funds to distribute before the year ends.)
Gilpatrick said some of the students who applied this time around had taken courses before and were disqualified. For the next year of the program, those students would be considered. The program is also redefining "need," allowing students to be eligible for the grants with incomes up to 150 percent of that needed to qualify for a federal Pell Grant. (This year it matched the Pell income level.)
The Go Higher Grant complements another state need-based program largely intended for full-time students of any age.
"The idea behind [Go Higher] is if you can offer one or two college courses for free to someone, they might like it so much that they'll want to take more," Gilpatrick said.