Fewer than half of the nearly 170 million U.S. residents ages 25 to 64 have obtained a postsecondary degree or certificate. The statistics for adult students of color who have attained higher education are even lower. About 46 percent of White adults hold a college degree, compared to only 22 percent of Native American, 24 percent of Latinx, and 30 percent of Black adults.
Policymakers, practitioners, and community leaders recognize that we must find ways to change course so that all Americans have the knowledge and skills to perform in our digital and global economy. Providing adult learners more financial aid and other types of support is one key to increasing educational attainment in the United States. But given that adult students of color are the least likely to complete college, increasing educational attainment will also require an equity focus. In other words, states will need to adopt strategies tailored to boost college enrollment and completion among adults from historically marginalized communities to reduce racial and ethnic gaps.
Lumina Foundation is at the forefront of helping states develop and implement innovative programs to engage adult learners. Through the Adult Promise Initiative, the Foundation and participating states have come to realize that an explicit focus on recruiting and supporting adult learners of color is essential to avoid deepening past injustices, alleviate economic marginalization of people and communities of color, and reach statewide attainment goals.
Although it’s easy to say that equity will be part of statewide education initiatives, it’s not as easy to accomplish it. One of the most consistent takeaways that Mathematica researchers have heard from Adult Promise states is that equity strategies must be built intentionally and based on the voices and experiences of people of color. Even though states feel an urgency to roll out their initiatives quickly, they have had to take time to build authentic relationships with the communities of interest, which sometimes includes slowing down or backtracking.
For example, program leaders in Maine and Oklahoma found that active listening and acknowledgment of historical marginalization is essential when working with tribal groups. Maine is starting to repair trust through conversations with the four tribes in the state to discuss how its new education portal can help promote economic development in tribal areas. Program leaders told us that an important strategy in these conversations has been more active listening and “not going in and saying, ‘This is how you should interact with us,’ but ‘What kind of economic and education access do you feel you need?’”
Adult Promise leaders in Oklahoma learned through deliberate listening that tribal leaders have felt marginalized and excluded from conversations in the state about higher education for many years. They realized that not only bringing tribal entities to the table—but also acknowledging that they should have been brought to the table a long time ago—was essential for building recruitment and support strategies that are responsive to the communities’ needs.
Maine program leaders use the same type of active listening when working with immigrant and refugee groups. For example, the leader of a refugee group told them, “Everyone wants us [refugees] to be low-level health care workers, and maybe we don’t want to be that.” Based on that feedback, the Adult Promise leaders told the Mathematica study team, “We have to listen to what these communities aspire to as well, and stop dictating programming for them, and have them co-create with us.”
In addition to listening, Oklahoma leaders emphasized the need for a slow, hands-on approach to build strong partnerships with African American communities in the state. They talk about meeting personally with faith-based groups and business leaders in communities of color. Staff attend every meeting they are invited to, and sometimes the meetings have little to do with Adult Promise work. For example, they attended a Juneteenth celebration in Tulsa to start laying the groundwork for a future partnership, and the host later invited the Adult Promise staff back for another event focused more on college recruitment.
It’s a slow and sometimes difficult process to authentically and effectively embed equity throughout education initiatives like Adult Promise. Maine and Oklahoma offer just a handful of examples of what this work looks like on the ground. Mathematica’s new issue brief, “Why Equity Matters for Adult College Completion,” unpacks more ways Adult Promise states are working to increase college enrollment and completion for adult students of color, from setting clear equity goals to designing equity-minded recruitment and support strategies.