As the U.S economy becomes more global and technology-driven, higher education attainment is increasingly vital to cut unemployment, minimize the skills gap, fill high-demand occupations, and maintain competitiveness. The nation must produce 62 million two- and four- year credentials, 23 million more than the current rate will yield, in order to meet the baseline goal that 60 percent of Americans earn a high-quality postsecondary degree or credential by 2025. That is according to the Lumina Foundation, the nation’s largest independent, private foundation focused on increasing success in higher education.

The Lumina Foundation 2013-2016 Strategic Plan projects 65 percent of U.S. jobs will require a higher education degree or credential by 2020. Since 2008, jobs requiring some postsecondary education or a degree have increased by 3.6 million, while jobs for people with a high school diploma or less have declined leading to higher unemployment rates. A July 2014 U.S. Federal Reserve report found that 24 percent of people who started a postsecondary program dropped out before completion and 54 percent “had to cut back on their spending in order to service their student debt.”

Currently, Washington ranks 15th of 50 states with 43.5 percent of residents holding a postsecondary degree. Private and public actors in Washington have begun developing strategies to increase degree completion. More than 935,000 adults in Washington between the ages 17 and 54 have some college but no certificate or degree, and 450,000 of them are not earning a living wage, according to the Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC) Roadmap.

On average, students in Washington State who earn a higher education credential see a six-figure return on their investment over the 20 years following graduation. Washington benefits greatly from these students because many of them stay in-state as their careers unfold – their success is Washington’s success.

Barriers for Returning Adult Students

Many barriers can hinder higher education attainment. A Higher Ed Insight survey for the Lumina Foundation identified obstacles adult learners consistently face including:

  • Personal: work and family responsibilities lead to competing priorities and limitations
  • Financial: cost of college, lack of eligibility to financial aid, and previous student debt
  • Psychological: fear of failure, attending class with younger students, unfamiliarity with technologies, re-learning study skills, and navigating complexities of institutions
  • Bureaucratic: ability to re-enroll, locate past transcripts and transfer credits
  • Academic: poor academic performance and difficulties completing required courses
  • Cultural: less encouragement and pursuit of higher education in first generation students

Such challenges ring true for Western Washington University (WWU) senior Tsonsera Rhoades, a 30-year old, mother and Army veteran, returning to school to study Mass Communications. Rhoades attended multiple colleges and universities before landing at WWU, where she faces the difficulties of balancing her student and parental responsibilities. She also found transferring credits to be a “pain in the butt” because “WWU would only transfer credit of classes that other students had transferred over” and that she would have “to provide a syllabus and explanation of other courses she took.”

Rhoades said she “had a completely different experience at Western” compared to other schools where she “feels the age and socioeconomic differences.” She described it as “frustrating and stressful” at times, but that Veterans Services and the Western Veteran’s Community club provide a support system that made transitioning easier.

Juliette Kern, 32 years old, graduated from University of Washington Tacoma (UWT) in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. She experienced similar barriers when transitioning back into higher education at Olympic College. These included financing her education without income and not having child care support. She spent much of her time raising her children, and as a result, she ended up not passing some of her classes at Olympic College. She experienced far more success at UWT, where she received ample support from knowledgeable professors and academic advisors. Currently, Kern is actively searching for employment in her field.

For Kern, attending college was her way of escaping part-time and low-paying jobs she held in the fast food industry, bartending, and as a temporary laborer. She said that prior to pursuing her post-secondary education, she juggled multiple jobs trying to support her family, but did not earn sufficient wages and found herself homeless, sometimes sleeping on couches or in her car. Although finding stable employment has been a challenge, Kern remains positive about finding a job and said, “my decision to return to post-secondary education has changed the world for me.”

Efforts to Overcome Barriers: Streamlining Degree Completion

Some of the best approaches to support returning adult college students include access to financial aid, academic advising, career planning, and flexible course options.

As Washington’s population changes, a “one size fits all” education system becomes less sustainable. Research and practice suggest that better educational methods, such as competency-based degrees, accelerated learning models, and assessment of prior learning serve to expand capacity, improve student outcomes, and streamline degree completion.

Competency-based education measures knowledge and skill acquisition regardless of time or place, and can ease degree completion leading to jobs with higher earnings potential. For example, Western Governors University (WGU), an online competency-based institution, provides flexible courses and programs that serve more than 40,000 students across the nation. WGU’s compound five-year annual graduation rate has grown 53 percent, from June 2008 to June 2012.

Prior Learning Assessments (PLA) evaluate previous life experiences for academic credit.  In 2011 and 2012, legislation passed requiring WSAC to convene a PLA Workgroup, which “has been very effective at sharing best practices among the institutions, developing model campus policies on awarding credit for prior learning, and creating ‘crosswalks’ for how certain professional certifications could translate into specific course credits”, according to Becca Kenna-Schenk, WSAC Director of Government Relations.

In 2014, the Washington State Legislature passed SB 5969. Kenna-Schenk said it requires that “each public higher education institution adopt a policy to award academic credit for military training courses and submit the policy to the PLA workgroup for feedback. Institutions are also required to provide a copy of this policy to all enrolled students with known military service.”

For Rhoades, higher education institutions do not recognize much of her college-level, military training. She said WWU transfers up to 15 general credits for military service, but that often underrepresents the experience. Rhoades someday wants to attend medical school and said it would be very helpful if her medical experience in the military transferred.

Efforts Around the State

“Increased adult degree completion… will require collaboration among higher education, industries and employers, government agencies that promote workforce development and provide social services, and community-based organizations,” according to Higher Ed Insight.

Paul Francis, Executive Director of the Council of Presidents, highlighted online and competency-based education programs at four-year public colleges and universities in Washington that help attract and encourage returning adult students. One WWU program called Destination Graduation targeted senior status students on academic hiatus and simplified their return to school. The program provided “graduation and application assistance; personalized academic advising; and financial aid opportunities and resources.” Unfortunately, the program was cut due to budget shortfalls.

Community and technical colleges across the state are incorporating PLA and competency-based education programs, according to Marty Brown, Executive Director of the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. Independent four-year institutions are also offering some degree completion programs, according to Violet Boyer, President and CEO of Independent Colleges of Washington.

One of WSAC’s two attainment goals set in 2013 aims for at least 70 percent of Washington adults having a postsecondary credential by 2023. Gene Sharratt, Executive Director of WSAC, noted that “a significant population of eligible adults have attained some postsecondary education but have no credential, certificate, or degree.” He said, “these adults are eager to return to training and educational opportunities in order to secure employment in careers of choice and contribute to their families and communities.”

Increased degree or credential attainment also strengthens communities and democracy through improved health, less participation in public assistance programs, lower crime rates, and increased global and civic engagement.


Emphasize Affordability, Access, and Accountability in Postsecondary Education – PLAN Washington Education Strategy #2.