Postsecondary Success for Adult Students Means Success for All

It turns out you can put a price on success, at least when it comes to postsecondary education.

Let’s start with $400,000. That’s how much more in lifetime earnings the average associate degree holder can expect beyond that earned by a worker with only a high school education. With a bachelor’s degree, that number jumps to $1.2 million.

Or consider this measure of success: 58,725. That’s the net increase of credential-holding workers available to Michigan employers if we achieve the state’s goal to increase the number of working-age adults with a skill certificate or college degree from 50.5% today to 60% by 2030.

The bottom line for success with that goal? A net increase of $4.3 billion in accrued earnings for Michiganders by 2030.

But “success” is the key word here, and thus the challenge before us.

The Michigan Center for Adult College Success, an initiative of CEO alliance TalentFirst, recently issued a landscape analysis, Adult Postsecondary Education in Michigan & Beyond , that lays out the opportunity and challenges to reaping the rewards of postsecondary education.

Recent high school graduates are important to Michigan’s Sixty by 30 objective — but there simply aren’t enough of them to produce the numbers we need. The only way we can reach that goal is by helping more adults complete a postsecondary education. Getting there means we will add more than 431,000 credential-holding adults to the state’s workforce.

With the Midwest’s lowest percentage of adults having a postsecondary credential, we have our work cut out for us. But we’re ready to get started.

A Roadmap Toward Attainable Goals

Our report is just the start, but it lays out a roadmap to increasing adult postsecondary attainment:

  1. Identify the adult learn population and the barriers they face: Our target population is diverse in age, gender, race/ethnicity, marital and family status, employment status, education level and location. The intersectionality of these can affect the degree of difficulty to enroll, persist and earn a credential.
  2. Understand the local context: Michigan’s postsecondary institutions will need to Develop a deep understanding of the local context relevant to the needs of individual adult learners. We need an adult-learner focused approach to better serve this population.
  3. Review and evaluate best practices: We need to provide a single location for individual institutions to learn about what works and what does not. This is something Michigan’s uniquely decentralized postsecondary system lacks — and the reason for the creation of the Michigan Center for Adult College Success.
  4. Develop customized best practices: Individual institutions will need support to develop the system changes appropriate for their unique adult learner populations and to effectively implement these changes. The Center is supporting this work with the launch this fall of the Michigan-Regional Adult Initiative for Skills and Education (MI-RAISE) Design Lab.
  5. Identify and procure resources: Significant change is not cheap, and many institutions lack the resources to complete such an undertaking. This makes it imperative that additional resources be identified. Toward this end, the Center plans to make $5 million available through a competitive award process to partner with institutions for the purpose of making system and process changes.
  6. Reach out to potential adult learners: By investing in both targeted information and broad outreach to potential adult learners, Michigan can address the general lack of awareness by adult learners about support systems to help them enroll and complete a credential.
  7. Leverage support networks and providers: It will take coordinated efforts by the entire ecosystem — including institutions of higher education, career and technical education providers, nonprofit organizations, state agencies, and employers — to build an efficient, comprehensive, and sustainable support structure for adults.
  8. Improve data quality and transparency: Too many data elements are either not collected or not publicly available. To build and continually improve systems to support adult learners, these data sets must be made available or created.

Why This Is Important

As documented in our report, research shows that individuals with postsecondary credentials are significantly more likely to participate in the workforce, find and maintain employment, and earn higher wages compared to their less-educated counterparts.

Labor force participation among those with an associate degree or bachelor’s degree is 10 and 18 percentage points higher, respectively, than those with a high school diploma. Unemployment is almost 3 percentage points
lower for those with an associate degree and nearly 6 points lower for those with a bachelor’s compared to those with a high school diploma. Poverty, likewise, is roughly 5 points lower for those with an associate degree and 11 points lower for those with a bachelor’s degree than those with a high school diploma.

At a time when 39% of Michigan’s population lives below the ALICE (Asset-Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) survival threshold, and when more than 350,000 job openings are going unfilled, this is an opportunity to drive progress for families as well as employers.

The state of Michigan has made significant investments in postsecondary tuition support programs, such as Michigan Reconnect , which recently expanded with a temporary reduction in the age threshold , from 25 to 21, for tuition-free community college. To realize the returns on those investments, we must improve the enrollment and retention of adult learners.

That’s how we deliver on the talent needs of our state’s employers — and help more Michiganders connect with good-paying jobs that await. That’s how all of Michigan will realize the true value of success.

Jeremy Hendges is executive director of The Michigan Center for Adult College Success, which TalentFirst launched in 2023 with authorization and funding from the state of Michigan. Learn more at .