Back To College, Part Two: A Policy Prescription to Support Adults Returning to College


Back to College is a two-part series that illuminates the millions of Californians who left college before completing their degree and now pay the price through diminished earnings and limited economic and social mobility. Part One assesses this population of four million California adults aged 25-64 and identifies the personal obstacles and systemic barriers they face upon returning to college to complete their degree. This report, Part Two, outlines pragmatic recommendations policymakers should incorporate to empower these adults to return to college, graduate, and thrive in California’s innovation economy.


A looming deficit of more than two million workers with degrees or certificates by 2025 threatens California’s ability to meet its economic needs.

As California attempts to close this projected gap, policymakers must consider adults to be a critical part of the solution. Four million adults aged 25 to 64 in California left college without a degree, representing a key opportunity for closing the degree attainment gap. Facing limited opportunities for economic and social mobility—nearly 70% earn less than $50,000 per year—they may be especially motivated to take advantage of pathways to a degree.

  1. Support adult student service needs – California should pilot a grant program for colleges and universities to assess, consolidate, and streamline existing support services for adult students.
  2. Connect job training and degree and certificate programs – The state should pilot a short-term award program through ETP that funds upskilling, especially for adults with some college but no degree, through trainings that explicitly connect to postsecondary degrees in relevant high-demand, high-wage fields.
  3. Expand aid eligibility for adults – The state should expand eligibility to the transfer entitlement Cal Grant by eliminating the requirement that students be 28 or younger to qualify for a Transfer Entitlement Cal Grants, and changing the residency requirement for these grants from time of high school graduation or 18th birthday to time of transfer.
  4. Reduce nominal barriers to re-entry – California should ease burdens on returning adults seeking to complete their degree by requiring community college districts and other public undergraduate colleges to develop policies that temporarily waive or reduce administrative fees, penalties, and holds to maximize the probability of adult re-enrollment.
  5. Remove administrative hurdles to degree conferral – California should require all community colleges to develop an “opt-out” policy for degree conferral.

All Californians would benefit if more adults with some college but no degree move across the finish line. But the standard pathways to a college degree are not designed for these adults. More than three quarters of them are working, and a large share (40 percent) have dependent children.2 A pathway to a degree that works for this adult population could provide a boost to the individual and familial prosperity of these newly minted graduates, sustain the state’s innovation economy by meeting workforce demands, and form civically engaged, cohesive communities. Supporting this population’s return to college and through the degree completion pathway will also contribute to balancing California’s severe income inequality; higher rates of poor students and students of color do not complete college in their first try due to structural and institutional barriers. These include unaffordability, opaque systems, and a lack of institutional supports. (See Back to College Part 1 for more detail.)

Because the barriers to degree completion for the adult population are varied, a systematic, multi-pronged approach is needed to significantly close the credential gap and meet workforce demand statewide.

Colleges and universities throughout California have instituted local efforts to help adults overcome personal, familial, financial, and institutional barriers to degree completion; however, those efforts are relatively limited in scope. Because barriers to degree completion for the adult population are varied, a systematic, multi-pronged approach is needed to significantly close the credential gap and meet workforce demand statewide.

The time is right to identify actionable policy recommendations that build on existing adult completion efforts in and outside of California.

The content that follows outlines five timely recommendations to support adults through degree completion in California. Although most are applicable to both two- and four-year colleges, some are tailored specifically to the California Community Colleges, given its outsized role educating adults and connecting them to the workforce.

The policy recommendations outlined here are fiscally pragmatic, politically feasible, build upon existing initiatives, improve equity for higher education student populations, and are scalable to achieve true impact.

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