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The Financial Help That Older College Students Need

Policies that limit student aid to adults who are holding down a job while going to college need to be re-examined.

More than 40 percent of American undergraduate college students are adults over the age of 25, many of whom are holding down jobs while working toward a degree. Yet the deck is stacked against them in many states as a result of limitations to financial aid. These policies are short-sighted: For the United States to remain competitive globally, it is essential to develop the skills and competencies of adults who are already in the workforce.

The limitations on student aid are sometimes in the form of dollar amounts and sometimes in the form of eligibility. According to one recent study, six states do not make any aid available to adults, and another dozen significantly restrict the amount of financial aid for students who are not recent high-school graduates.

Many states that do provide financial aid to adults offer remarkably little: $500 annually in some cases, and none at all if the adult is more than 16 months past high-school graduation. In addition, some states require a student to maintain full-time student status, even up to 30 credit hours a year, to be eligible for assistance, creating an unnecessary barrier to a working adult with family responsibilities.

Are these policies a wise allocation of state resources? Not if you look at the value of a college degree, both to individuals and to their communities. For individuals, a college degree translates into lifetime earnings of $1 million more than for those without. An educated workforce not only translates into stronger state economies and more jobs: Higher earnings result in greater tax revenue. And the unemployment rate for those without a college degree is nearly four times higher than for those who do hold a degree.

It's not only four-year degrees that matter. Even one- or two-year credentials after high school fill an important need in our economy. A Georgetown University study estimates that by 2020 65 percent of all jobs will require some education beyond high school. Yet when you look at our demographics, it's clear that merely boosting the college-going and -completion rates of recent high-school graduates won't go far enough to meet the needs of employers who need people with higher levels of skill.

There is a better way. State laws and regulations on student aid should be changed so they no longer discriminate against people on the basis of age or on how long it has been since high-school graduation. There are tough decisions to be made when allocating tight state resources, but education beyond high school should not always be at the bottom of the list, especially when it has such potential to benefit the economy over the long term.

Increasing our investment in postsecondary education does not mean that we cannot spend financial aid dollars more wisely and efficiently. In many states, financial aid is used simply as a dollar-for-dollar payment against a tuition bill. But it's also possible, given all the educational tools now available, to leverage financial aid money so that there can be a greater return, in terms of college credits acquired, per dollar spent.

Currently, tools that are particularly effective for adult students, such as competency based education (CBE) and prior learning assessment (PLA) are typically not covered by financial aid programs. PLA and CBE are both strategies that allow students to advance toward a degree based on what they know, not just how much time they have spent in a classroom. These strategies formally evaluate and recognize the college-level learning that is obtained on the job, through volunteer work or in military service.

According to a research study by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, when PLA was offered adult students earned, on average, 17 credits for what they already knew at a fraction of the cost of tuition for conventional classroom experiences, and they were more than twice as likely to persist and graduate than those who did not take part in PLA. Savings can range from a low of around $1,605 at a large public university to a high of around $6,000 at other institutions.

So let's start talking about how we're providing state financial aid. Let's look for ways to allocate higher-education resources in a way that is more aligned with the reality that 40 percent of college students are adult learners. The impact will be healthier local economies and more economically secure citizens. By helping adult college students a little, we also help ourselves.

Pamela Tate is the president and CEO of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.
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