Urban Wire Adult Learners Could Be Part of the Solution to Pandemic-Related Labor Gaps
Madeline Brown
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Workforce systems around the country are facing labor shortages. Forty-two states have more available jobs than workers, and since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly a third of workers younger than 40 have considered changing their occupation or field. Consequently, the number of workers who might require training and services is at a unique high.

Community colleges are in a distinctive position to fill this gap. They often serve many adult learners and offer educational programs designed to prepare the workforce. To address the mismatch in the pandemic and post-pandemic labor market, equipping community colleges with a better understanding of who adult learners are and what their needs are will be key.

How data are helping Chicago community colleges meet the needs of adult learners  

In 2020, the City Colleges of Chicago (CCC) began working with the Urban Institute to develop a comprehensive picture of adult learners in Chicago. CCC aimed to better understand the numbers and needs of adult learners across the city so it could support regional economic growth and maximize the college system’s capacity to serve this broad population.

Through this work, a team at Urban developed a comprehensive definition of adult learners that other jurisdictions seeking to better serve or expand services for these learners can use. Using American Community Survey (ACS) data, we defined an adult learner as anyone who is 25 years or older, or anyone who is 18 to 24 but assumes an adult role, such as a parent, spouse, full-time worker, or veteran. 

This baseline definition was helpful, but CCC needed more specific information to be able to design effective services and programs to meet the diverse needs of this group. So after developing this definition, we disaggregated data for these groups by characteristics like race and ethnicity, educational attainment, household income, employment status, marital status, foreign-born status, military status, and parent status. For example, we assessed how many parents were between ages 18 and 24, the educational attainment of foreign-born adults, and the employment status of all adults older than 18. 

Equipped with information on these subgroups and an understanding of the strategic implications of focusing on any of these groups, CCC chose to concentrate on how it could better serve adults with some college but no degree—or 18 percent of all Chicagoans ages 25 and older.

Working with partners and local nonprofits, CCC homed in on the following trends: 

  • About half of these adults are working full time, but three in five make less than $25,000 per year.
  • Over a third (34 percent) are not working and have not worked in the last year.
  • Nearly 40 percent are living more than 200 percent below the federal poverty level.

Concerned with the relatively low wages of these adults despite half working full time, and having just announced a debt forgiveness program for students with outstanding fines and fees from the colleges, CCC decided to capitalize on getting adults back into virtual classrooms to finish degrees. In fall 2021, they began a pilot navigator program specifically for students who had completed some college but not yet received their degrees.

Targeting services to adult learners’ unique needs can support training and completion

Each jurisdiction’s adult learner population is different and has unique learning needs. Community colleges across the country can apply our definition of adult learners and approach to disaggregating and analyzing ACS data to better understand subpopulations in their areas and tailor their services accordingly.

If a jurisdiction decides to focus on adults who are foreign born rather than adults with some credit but no degree, as CCC did, they could consider additional English-language instruction, high school equivalency programs, citizenship and immigrant integration support, or recredentialing for people with credentials awarded internationally. A focus on parents, on the other hand, might warrant strategies including child care, basic income supports, and connection to food assistance programs.

Adult learners are a much bigger and more diverse group than many think. As the country recovers from the pandemic, these learners could play an important role in advancing regional economic growth while securing the employment they need to support themselves and their families. They just need the right education and tailored supports.


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Research Areas Education
Tags COVID-19
Policy Centers Research to Action Lab
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