A neglected force that can boost our economy

March 12, 2004

The UK should do more to support low-income adults through higher education, says Jacqueline King

Most universities are preoccupied with adjusting to what we in the US have termed the double whammy: rising numbers of traditional-age students seeking higher education and dramatically reduced government funding. Given these circumstances, why pay attention to low-income adults? At first glance, there seem to be more reasons for higher education to ignore them than to make them a priority.

Universities expend great amounts of time, effort and expense to educate low-income adult students. They require not only financial aid to enrol, but also expensive services such as counselling, tutoring and child care.

Institutions typically receive no mandate from policy-makers to make low-income adults a priority. Political leaders have little incentive to focus on low-income adults when voting parents are clamouring for access to low-cost, high-quality institutions for their children. There is political interest in using higher education as an engine of workforce development, but that interest rarely translates into major funding for programmes targeting adults at the bottom of the economic ladder.

But closer inspection reveals many demographic, educational, economic and social reasons for making the education of low-income adults a national priority. These apply equally to the UK as to the US.

First, while the short-term demographic situation emphasises recent high-school graduates, the long-term trend is towards an older, less traditional student body. The US department of education predicts that both the number of adults between the ages of 25 and 44 and the share of these individuals who enrol in college will increase significantly in the period up to 2012. Today in the US, about 40 per cent of older undergraduates - 2.5 million students - have an income of less than $25,000 (£13,600).

Economists Anthony Carnevale and Donna Desrochers estimate that there are 11 million additional low-income adults who have enough academic preparation to benefit from tertiary education but have not enrolled.

The second rationale is educational. Although a significant number of American students are low-income adults, they are much less likely to succeed than their traditional-age and more affluent peers. Seven per cent of low-income adults who enrolled on bachelors degrees in 1995-96 had succeeded by 2001 compared with 42 per cent of traditional-age students.

Low-income adults enter college with a mix of family and work responsibilities that make it difficult for them to succeed without highly supportive institutions and public policies.

Society benefits economically when low-income adults succeed in higher education. People who earn a postsecondary degree earn more and are less likely to be unemployed than those with a high-school diploma only.

Economists estimate that increasing a country's average level of schooling by one year can increase economic growth by up to 15 per cent. And, rather than drawing on public resources such as welfare or subsidised housing, a well-educated population will contribute to the public purse as taxpayers.

The last reasons are social. Not only do educated low-income adults become more economically productive, they become better citizens and agents of change in their communities and families. They create stable homes and community organisations that can transform poverty-stricken neighbourhoods.

The impact of educating a low-income adult is also multi-generational.

Studies have shown that children with educated parents are more likely to go to college and succeed than those whose parents have no higher education experience. An investment in the educational attainment of a low-income adult is an investment in the educational attainment of an entire family.

Building a case for the importance of educating low-income adults is relatively easy. Identifying and implementing the mix of institutional and public policies and programmes that can help these students succeed is more difficult. Higher education leaders and policy-makers in the US and UK need better to understand the needs of low-income adults, identify effective institutional programmes and public policies and - most difficult - secure enough funding to implement the programmes and policies that will help them improve their lives through higher education.

Jacqueline E. King is director of the American Council on Education Center for Policy Analysis, which is sponsoring an initiative on low-income adults students, Improving Lives: Ensuring Academic Success for Low-income Adults.

Details: www.acenet.edu/programs/policy

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