December 16, 2020

Prioritizing Adult Learners on the Path to Attainment

Sheryl Hart, David Drennon, Diane Ryan

While discussions about educational attainment often focus on preparing students to pursue degrees or certifications after high school, the fact is, there aren’t enough students in the K-12 pipeline alone to enable us to reach our postsecondary attainment goal. We must also focus on adult learners. More than 600,000 Arizonans over age 25 don’t have a high school diploma, and more than 1.2 million have some college and no degree. With many people looking to reskill or upskill due to the pandemic, now is the time to find strategies and overcome challenges to bring these adults back into higher education.

Sheryl Hart is the Deputy Associate Superintendent for Adult Education at Arizona Department of Education.

David Drennon is a Workforce Strategy Consultant at Arizona Commerce Authority.

Diane Ryan is the Vice President of Strategic Initiatives and Interim Vice President of Instruction at Yavapai College.

What are you and your education colleagues talking about now that was previously not discussed in education?

Sheryl Hart: One of the primary purposes of adult education under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act has always been to help parents obtain the education and skills that they need to be full partners in the educational development of their children. But since the pandemic, what it means to be involved in your children’s education has changed. Parents, even those with advanced degrees or who are educators, are struggling with this new role right now. We really need to find a way to support parents, especially those who are learning English or who have limited academic experience.

David Drennon: The number one thing right now is digital access. The state was making some inroads on increasing broadband access statewide, but that was disrupted by COVID. At the same time, the pandemic has also helped light a fire on the process of increasing broadband access statewide as soon as possible. Response to the crisis will bring forth innovation to really help people for the long term.

Diane Ryan: Right now, we are talking about short-term programs. We are trying to figure out what we can teach in a semester or less. We want to understand what in our current courses could be delivered over a weekend, for example, to help current working adults reskill or upskill as quickly as possible.

What have been the main challenges adult learners in your community have faced as a result of the pandemic?

Sheryl Hart: The adult education student, generally speaking, is a person with barriers to employment. They may lack a secondary diploma, have low academic skills, are English-language learners, or have low employability skills. That means that these adult learners are probably some of the most vulnerable to job loss, which usually comes with loss of healthcare and can result in homelessness and food insecurity. This can lead to a disruption in their educational process. When people get thrown into survival mode, it becomes difficult for them to make forward progress and work on developing skills they need in order to get ahead.

David Drennon: Folks are having to pivot from where they thought they might be going because the pandemic has impacted so many industries. Adult learners are trying to figure out which industries have the most in-demand jobs. The majority of Americans enrolling in higher education programs today are looking at non-degree and skills training programs. Then, there is the added layer of what to do with their kids, when they need to be both parent and teacher’s aide on top of juggling their current job and training. We need to develop strategies that support these “non-traditional” students who need flexibility and help re-entering postsecondary education.

Diane Ryan: Adult learners are dealing with a lack of time and many unplanned challenges that have been brought about by the pandemic. We are very fortunate at Yavapai College to have a foundation to help our students, and we need to make sure that our students know we have resources to help them. Whether they need help with rent, technology or meals, these unforeseen challenges are impacting the lives of our students. We need community resources and support systems so that adult students can focus on learning without having to worry about necessities like childcare, food, and housing.

What has been the role of the pandemic in highlighting educational inequities for adult students?

Sheryl Hart: There have always been educational inequities for adult learners. Before the pandemic, there were adults with transportation issues, childcare issues, or irregular work schedules. When we moved everything online, some of the barriers changed. Many of our students have limited or no access to technology or an internet connection, or poor technology skills. These students struggle in this virtual environment.   

David Drennon: Access to broadband has always been a challenge, but it’s even more accentuated during this time. One of the great things the state has been able to do with its broadband initiative is to get access to personal Wi-Fi hotspots.  It’s just part of a robust, multi-faceted solution underway at the Arizona Commerce Authority that will help Arizonans overcome technology barriers.

Diane Ryan: The average age of residents here in Yavapai County is 54. One of the issues no one has talked about is the impact of the social isolation on our adult population, paired with the lack of broadband access and the fear of getting to know technology. At Yavapai College, we have one of the nation’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, and quickly realized online learning was not working for so many of our students. We had to figure out how to get older, adult students online, by overcoming barriers to broadband and computer access. 

Given the economic instability right now, how do postsecondary institutions help graduating students prepare for what comes next?

Sheryl Hart: Adult education programs work closely with community colleges and other training providers to make sure that students have seamless connections to their next steps even after they leave adult education. Our adult education system is investing heavily in partnerships with postsecondary institutions. For example, our students can work toward earning their secondary diploma or improving their English language skills, and at the same time work toward an industry-recognized credential. 

David Drennon: We have worked closely with Maricopa County Community College District to identify skills within the hospitality industry that are transferable across industry sectors where there is demand. Even with our current outlook, the insurance, IT, software, and banking industries have had growth. The number one ask across all these industries is customer service, and you can’t get a better candidate for that than someone from the hospitality industry. So, folks in the hospitality industry need to understand that they bring a really valuable skillset to the table.  

Diane Ryan: Typically, when unemployment goes up, our enrollment goes up, and our enrollment hasn’t gone up. We saw a decline.  We had an uptick in the summer, but we had a decline in enrollment this fall. So, how are we preparing students? I think what we need to focus on is short-term programs, semester or less programs that will lead to some type of employment for adults.

How do you think a recession and unemployment will affect adult education?

Sheryl Hart:  The adult education system is impacted because, as unemployment rates go up, the need for adult education goes up. But at the same time, state budgets get tight and resources get strained. What may happen, although I hope it doesn’t, is that we have a need to serve more students and we end up with fewer resources to do so.

David Drennon: I think there will be more demand for adult education. We’ll see a wave of people wanting to increase their skillset, wanting to transition to new industries for their future, and with that comes quite a bit of training.

Diane Ryan: During the 2009 Great Recession, the school I worked at put picnic benches in classrooms, because we didn’t have enough seats for students. We’re not seeing that this time, and it is concerning. The uncertainty is causing fear for too many people.  

Who is inspiring you in this challenging time and why?

Sheryl Hart: The adult educators in the local communities who are committed to meet the needs of their students. I know of teachers who are printing materials and then dropping them off for students who don’t have access to online instruction, and, at the same time, they are teaching other students via Zoom. The level of dedication from these educators are has been very inspiring.

David Drennon: I would say probably the person who inspires me the most is Sandra Watson, President & CEO of the Arizona Commerce Authority. She has remained so strong through this entire pandemic. She has kept the focus on what the Arizona Commerce Authority does well – strengthening  businesses and creating quality jobs, important to moving Arizona forward. 

Diane Ryan: I’m inspired by our K-12 faculty. In higher ed, we scrambled to get a plan together, but fortunately we did. And it hasn’t been easy. But I really have felt for the superintendents in our K-12 system here in Yavapai County. They were provided very little direction in the first five months of the pandemic, and have really had to figure it out themselves.

What do you think will be the best way for Arizona to achieve our 60 percent postsecondary attainment goal given our new reality?

Sheryl Hart: We can’t reach our Achieve60AZ goal without factoring in the impact adult learners can make towards helping us reach our goal. Adult education and the adult learners are a forgotten system. There’s K-12 and there’s postsecondary. People just want to think that there’s a seamless pathway from K-12 to postsecondary. But the fact is, there are a lot of people in Arizona who do not take that seamless pathway. They are no longer in K-12, but they are not yet able to participate successfully in postsecondary or even in employment. That’s where adult education fits and can be part of the solution.

David Drennon: There is going to be an increase on the training side, I think. There is no better time than now to encourage people to pursue credentials and certification, thereby elevating skillsets in Arizona’s workforce, and to hit fast forward on our efforts to drive toward that 60 percent. We need to remove the hurdles that prevent adults from going back to school, and encourage employers to support their employees in working toward credentials or certifications that could be valuable to both individuals and the organizations they work for. 

Diane Ryan: Short-term programs, flexible schedules, eight-week classes, weekend colleges. We’ve never had a huge workforce training or development program, and I think that’s why the board has made it our priority now. Connecting those short-term programs into some kind of practicum or paid internship for those students once they’re finished with their semester class is going to be critical.