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CAEL Newsroom

CAEL Research on College Affordability for Adult Learners Reveals Urgent Need for Policy Reform

Scarcities in time and money far more likely to disrupt education plans than academic challenges 

INDIANAPOLIS – CAEL (the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning), a nonprofit organization that helps adult learners navigate on- and off-ramps between education and employment, has released How They Pay: The Voices of Adult Learners on College Affordability, and How Institutions Are Responding. The report, based on survey and interview data from adult learners and education providers around the country, underscores the gravity of nonacademic barriers facing adult workers and learners who aspire to upskill or reskill. The failure of Pell Grant funding to keep pace with the rise in college expenses has exacerbated these barriers for lower-income learners, and the report offers several recommendations to help postsecondary institutions and policymakers better support adult learner success.

While nearly half of survey respondents had stopped out of college, only 19% did so because of academic workload or performance, the study reveals. Meanwhile, the majority of those who left a program did so for monetary (56%), time (58%), or personal/health reasons (66%). 

“The CAEL community has long recognized that adult learners and workers enrich their classrooms with a wealth of experience and powerful self-motivation,” said Earl Buford, CAEL president. “Unfinished credentials are not a question of students failing to meet educational challenges, but of an education-employment system that often fails to meet these students where they are, particularly with respect to affordability.”

The report shows that attempts to overcome gaps in financing their education have left many adult learners saddled with student loan balances from previous enrollments, often without a credential, even as they seek opportunities to complete new, work-relevant ones. Implications for underserved students are particularly onerous. Of the 83% of lower-income adult Pell Grant recipients who reported carrying student loan debt, most indicated that their current financial aid covered less than half of their education-related expenses. This group of students had the highest average loan debt among survey respondents, at $29,000, $8,000 higher than the average respondent.

Among the report’s recommendations is increasing the value of the Pell Grant to cover at least the cost of community college attendance. The report also calls for extending Pell Grant eligibility to workforce-critical shorter-term education and training programs connected to rewarding career pathways. 

Several strategies for how institutions can improve college affordability for adult learners are also available in the report. For example, revising institutional policies and practices, including those that may impose excess student fees or transcript holds for trivial balances due, can offer students relief. In addition, clarifying financial award letters, adult learner-focused scholarships, and deferring billing for students using tuition reimbursement benefits can improve accessibility. 

The report also details how innovative curriculum design and employer partnerships can lower the costs of providing programs. It also advocates for reducing or eliminating CPL fees while enhancing advising practices in key areas like financial aid.

Additional, regulatory recommendations include expanding the eligibility of credit for prior learning and competency-based education under federal and state financial aid programs. Strategic student loan forgiveness, increased financial incentives for undertaking short-term credential programs, and a reassessment of lifetime benefit limits would also benefit adult learners, the report suggests. 

The report also highlights existing sources of completion support that have a substantial potential to boost completion for adult learners. For example, those who used employer tuition assistance programs (TAP) were among the respondents most confident in their ability to finance their education. However, not all employers offer such benefits, and among those that do, employee awareness varies; only about 24% of the respondents reported utilizing TAP benefits. Pell Grant and first-generation adult learners were least likely to have used this benefit among the survey population. Moreover, TAPs often operate with a reimbursement model, meaning students must bear education costs up front before applying for qualifying funds later. 

The report offers several additional recommendations for institutional practitioners and public policymakers. The full publication is available at cael.org.

About CAEL
Recognizing that adult learners are the backbone of the U.S. economy, CAEL helps forge a clear, viable connection between education and career success, providing solutions that promote sustainable and equitable economic growth. CAEL opens doors to opportunity in collaboration with workforce and economic developers; postsecondary educators; employers and industry groups; and foundations and other mission-aligned organizations. By engaging with these stakeholders, we foster a culture of innovative, lifelong learning that helps individuals and their communities thrive. A membership organization established in 1974, CAEL is Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Workplace™ certified and is a part of Strada Collaborative, a mission-driven nonprofit. Learn more at cael.org and stradacollaborative.org.