Improving Data to Support Adult Learners

Last month, we released Out of the Dark, in which we outlined a policy agenda for moving the state toward a data system that integrates K-12, postsecondary, and workforce information. One group that stands to gain considerably from a better data system is adult learners. 

As the figure below shows, even if California could reach 100 percent college degree attainment among 20-24 year-olds, we would still be nowhere near closing the gap of over 2 million degrees and credentials needed to sustain the state’s economy. Serving the postsecondary needs of adults is critical to achieving both individual and statewide economic prosperity. The state cannot close the degree gap without a strategy to focus on adult learners, and a strategy for adult learners must consider equity.

Adults who have completed some college but left without earning a degree represent a large opportunity for the state to realize the returns on investment it has already made in them. In total, an estimated 4.5 million Californians between the ages of 25 and 64 have some college credits but no degree. These adults are disproportionately Latino, Black, and Pacific Islander.

In recent years, college enrollment numbers have increased for racial/ethnic groups with historically low levels of educational attainment, but completion rates have not yet caught up. As long as this trend holds, the pool of adults with some college but no degree will grow and continue to include disproportionately high rates of underrepresented minorities.

Latinos represent the most drastic example. As the figure below shows, the number of Latinos enrolled in California postsecondary institutions has nearly doubled since 2004. However, completion rates for this group increased only slightly at two-year colleges and decreased at four-year colleges during that time period. 

It will take a statewide strategy informed by statewide data to serve this population and close one of California’s most glaring equity gaps. However, the state’s current data systems are not sufficient to properly support these students.

Better data could enhance support for returning adults in a number of ways:

  1. Identifying and recruiting students: Unlike high school seniors who are a captive audience for college enrollment messaging, adult students must be found in more disparate settings. Individual institutions can mine their records for non-completers, but they do not know if these non-completers have enrolled in or completed at another institution, or if there are non-completers in their vicinity who were previously enrolled at another institution. An integrated data system could allow colleges to target outreach to potential students in their area, regardless of where they were previously enrolled.
  2. Conducting automated degree audits: There are many Californians who have earned the credits for a degree but have not declared it, and still others could be very close to completion and need just a slight nudge to go back. Having data that are integrated across higher education segments is crucial since most California college students attend more than one institution over their postsecondary careers. Integrated data systems can streamline the process of conducting degree audits to determine where adults have already earned degrees or are within just a few courses of completing.
  3. Assessing the workplace value for adult learners: Although each of California’s higher education segments currently receives wage data for its graduates, the data do not track students who go on for additional education or move to other segments, limiting the state’s ability to understand the payoff of increasingly popular stackable credentials. An integrated data system could help the state and institutions make smarter investments to better align programming with the state economy’s needs.

Serving the postsecondary needs of adults is critical to achieving both individual and statewide economic prosperity. The state cannot close the degree gap without a strategy to focus on adult learners, and a strategy for adult learners must consider equity.

Policies in other states show how better data can enable stronger outcomes for adults. For example, Mississippi enacted Complete 2 Compete, a partnership between the state’s public universities and community colleges initiative, in 2017. Students who had previous college experience can quickly receive a degree audit from across the institutions they have attended and learn how far they are from receiving a degree. Their initial systemwide analysis identified more than 84,000 students who had already earned or were close to earning a degree. Similarly, Project Win-Win, a pilot project of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, used data to identify 130,000 adults across nine states who were nine to twelve credits short of an associate’s degree and attempted to re-engage them.

This month, Senate Bill 1224, which called for the creation of an integrated data system, failed to pass out of the California Senate Appropriations Committee. Even though this bill lacked many of the details needed to fully guide the creation of a statewide data system, the bill’s failure represents the latest in a series of faltered attempts to improve the quality of information we have about the state’s largest expenditure—education. California’s history of incomplete efforts at improving and integrating its education data systemwide, while other states have passed us by, calls for stronger leadership that attends to the details as well as the larger vision of moving more students toward degree attainment to close the degree gap.

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