New ACE Paper Recommends Ways to Ease Path to Degree for Post-traditional Learners
December 06, 2017

A paper released today by ACE, The Post-traditional Learners Manifesto Revisited: Aligning Postsecondary Education with Real Life for Adult Student Success (583 KB PDF), reveals that post-traditional learners make up nearly 60 percent of the undergraduate population in the United States.

Building on ACE’s long history of supporting both post-traditional learners and the higher education institutions that serve them, Revisited digs deeper into the needs of these college-goers and offers recommendations to help institutions, researchers, and policymakers better help this growing population of postsecondary students complete their degrees.

In this analysis, post-traditional learners are students who are over the age of 25, working full-time, financially independent, or connected with the military. They are a diverse group with a range of educational needs, encompassing many life stages and identities: single mothers, immigrants, veterans, and full-time employees.

“It is important to find new and innovative ways to help post-traditional students chart an efficient and affordable course to a postsecondary degree,” said ACE President Ted Mitchell. “The recommendations laid out in this paper will help institutions and policymakers think about how to better respond to this challenge.”

According to Revisited, if everyone in the United States 25 years or older with some college but no degree earned an associate degree, 1.1 million Americans would climb out of poverty. This would result in an additional $111.6 billion in after-tax income and an additional $43.2 billion in tax revenue in just one year.

“Helping more post-traditional learners earn a degree would have lasting and transformative effects on our society, economy, and higher education,” said Louis Soares, lead author of Revisited and ACE’s vice president for Strategy, Research and Advancement. “Of the 23 million undergraduates, more than 13 million are post-traditional learners. Some start a degree but don’t finish it, racking up debt and adding to their financial burdens.”

Jonathan S. Gagliardi, co-author of Revisited and associate director of ACE’s Center for Policy Research and Strategy, noted that the current higher education model is not set up for post-traditional student success.

“Whether because of age, employment duties, military enlistment, or responsibilities like caregiving, many of these learners face unique obstacles in finishing a degree because many institutions were not designed to work for them,” he said. “With this manifesto, we give institutions the tools to create more comprehensive learning structures.”

The authors provide recommendations for improving data, developing more robust or integrated financial aid and employment policies, and tailoring academic programs in ways that would strengthen how post-traditional learners are served:

Improving data: At the national level, build on ongoing improvements to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System that allow for a better understanding of college-going patterns of post-traditional learners.

Developing policies: Continue to invest in the Pell Grant Program in ways that make college more affordable for post-traditional learners.

Tailoring academic programs: Use institutional data, policies, and systems to prescribe the right delivery models and services.

The paper concludes that crafting new strategies for post-traditional learners presents an opportunity for higher education institutions and policymakers to make higher education more accessible and sustainable.

For a deeper dive into ACE’s long history of understanding and supporting post-traditional learners, see this blog post on Higher Education Today by the paper’s authors.