Supporting Postsecondary Enrollment for Adult Learners of Color

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To improve overall educational attainment and support equitable outcomes, it is critical to support working-age adults’ enrollment in postsecondary education—focusing especially on adult learners of color. Over 40 million adults in the United States have some college experience but no degree, and adults of color are disproportionately likely to fall into this category or to have only completed high school.

Despite stated interest among institutions and policymakers in helping adults obtain postsecondary credentials, the field has an incomplete understanding of what institutional practices and program models best encourage and support adult learners as they consider enrolling in postsecondary education.       

Project Overview

This project, supported by Lumina Foundation, aims to help leaders at postsecondary institutions design programs in ways that support the needs, strengths, and interests of Black, Hispanic, and Native American adult learners.

This study focused on understanding the college re(enrollment) decisionmaking processes of adult learners of color, including whether and how educational and training program models factor into their enrollment decisions.        

Study Results

The final report and research brief contain detailed findings and takeaways.         

View an infographic summarizing key findings (PDF) or watch this video for highlights.       

In this section, we highlight a few cross-cutting themes featured in the report.

Understanding the decision-making process of adult learners of color is crucial for institutions to create and implement effective recruitment and support strategies. 

  • Adult learners of color can consider enrolling for an extended period of time before making an enrollment decision. Their decision-making is often about whether and when to attend—considerations that can take a long time—rather than choosing where to attend at any specific moment. Critically, institutions do not “see” these periods, until or unless an adult learner reaches out.
  • Many of their top concerns, questions, and preferences center on whether they can make college “work” in their lives—financially, logistically, and socially. These findings highlight the role of information, particularly the timing of that information: many adult learners described not learning about key information related to program models prior to enrolling, unless they found a specialized program that was designed and marketed specifically for adult learners (often including emphases of flexibility or predictability, as well as modalities).

It’s also important to understand other factors shaping their decisions and perceptions, which may influence outreach channels and opportunities.

  • Learners’ ecosystems shape the information and encouragement they receive, playing a critical role in their extended decision-making process. “Information brokers,” in particular, are an important resource throughout their journeys.
  • Many adult learners may have adverse prior experiences with postsecondary education or might have received negative messages from K–12 teachers or counselors about whether they were “college material.” These experiences shape whether they think college is “for” them and whether they will feel welcomed.

Finally, their decision process doesn’t end with enrollment—it continues even when they’ve chosen and started attending college. This decision-making process extends through to degree completion; even when they have built momentum, (re)enrolling each term can feel like a new active decision, rather than a default choice—affecting retention and stopout decisions by adults.         

Final Report

Report cover

“Can I Make This Work with My Life?” Exploring the College (Re)Enrollment Decisions of Adult Learners of Color is one of a series of resources from a study that explored the college-going decision-making experiences of adult learners of color in postsecondary education. Rather than study the specific point in time at which they decided to enroll, this report focuses on the continual decision-making process that adult learners engage in throughout their educational journey, summarizing takeaways from interviews and surveys with adult learners of color about their (re)enrollment decisionmaking processes and influences. It includes key themes as well as a series of takeaways and implications for institutions interested in better recruiting, engaging, and supporting adult learners of color.          

Research Brief

Exploring the College (Re)Enrollment Decisions among Adult Learners of Color - Using the Iloh Model of College-Going Decisions and Trajectories to Understand the Role of Ecosystems and Shaping Experiences summarizes takeaways from narrative interviews with adult learners of color, using the Iloh Model of College-Going Decisions and Trajectories to explore deeply the roles of “ecosystems” or influencers for adult learners, as well as the role of early-in-life shaping experiences. This brief provides context for researchers and institutional leaders interested in better understanding decisionmaking processes as well as the factors that might shape these learners’ interests and questions when considering postsecondary education.      

Video: How Colleges and Universities Can Better Support Adult Learners of Color


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