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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — As it did for a lot of people, the pandemic gave Kara Reilly time to think.  

“My turning moment was when I was shut down and I had 11 weeks to sit around,” said Reilly, 49, a hairdresser in Louisville, Kentucky, whose salon closed early in the pandemic. Seeing that “things could literally end in a split moment” pushed her to revisit an old goal: going to college, maybe to become a high school English teacher. 

Then, on June 8 of this year, Jefferson Community & Technical College  announced a “Jump-Start Grant” offering a year’s free tuition for new  students 25 and older in the region.  

A week later, 344 students had applied. By month’s end, there were 665 (including Reilly), which was more than double the college’s June 2019 applications. 

“We talk about our adult learners as workers who go to school rather than students who work.”

Emily House, executive director, Tennessee Higher Education Commission and the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation

“It gets people’s attention anytime you say, ‘Free,’ ” said Jimmy Kidd, the director of admissions, who spoke between in-person student orientation sessions in the library of the school’s downtown Louisville campus in late June.  

“Free college” or “promise” programs have long focused on recent high school grads. But now a convergence of factors — a dwindling pool of traditional-age students, the call for more educated workers and a pandemic that highlighted economic disparities and scrambled habits and jobs — is putting adults in the spotlight.  

“The message is getting clearer and clearer: This is what our postsecondary population looks like,” said Alexandria Walton Radford, co-author of a new study by the American Institutes for Research that identified 67 “promise” programs across the U.S. that pay college tuition for adults.  

 Valissa White, a single mother studying at the University of Louisville, lives at Family Scholar House, which supports low-income parents who are attending school. Credit: Laura Pappano for The Hechinger Report

Getting the roughly 35 million adults age 25 and over with some college and no degree — or those like Reilly who never enrolled — to engage is critical, but not easy. One huge problem: Many programs aimed at adults are not set up to serve them. 

Cost is an obvious barrier, which is why free tuition gets attention. The “Michigan Reconnect” offer of free community college tuition for those 25 and up was flooded with applications after opening in February.  

But “free” is not straightforward.  Missouri’s Fast Track Workforce Incentive Grant, created in 2019 to target those 25 and older, has a “clawback” provision so students  who don’t fulfill requirements must repay it as a loan with interest. (“It’s a real barrier,” said Zora Mulligan, the state’s commissioner of higher education.) Only 500 people have enrolled in two years. Other state programs, including one in Kentucky and a new one in Louisiana, offer free tuition only for study in certain fields.  

Related: ‘Free  college’ programs sound great  — but who gets excluded? 

In fact, the American Institutes for Research analysis of “adult promise” programs, which included statewide and institution-based offerings, found numerous requirements that conflicted with the needs of many adult students.  

Two big hurdles, said Radford, were that applicants be first-time college students and that they attend full time.  “Free college tuition only gets you so far,” she said. 

Experts in higher education note that college has been set up for 18- to 22-year-olds with flexible schedules who like to sleep in and take weekends off — and are supported by parents.  

After “Tennessee Reconnect” helped Valissa White pay for her associate degree, she enrolled in a bachelor’s degree completion program at the University of Louisville and found housing for herself and her 8-year-old son at Family Scholar House. Credit: Laura Pappano for The Hechinger Report

Adults may have jobs, child care concerns, questions about past credits, loan defaults, even anxiety  about returning to school, said Laura Perna, executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania, who oversees a database and research on college promise programs.  

“There is a complexity to adult learners,” said Perna. Programs to serve them must consider finances, schedules and supports. “It is really recognizing, ‘What are the circumstances of individual people’s lives?’ If someone is to enroll in college, how do you make it possible for them to attend?” 

For Valissa White, a 29-year-old single mother, going to college requires housing help and medically appropriate schooling and child care for her 8-year-old son, who has congenital heart failure and an intellectual disability.  

Valissa White’s workspace in her bedroom at Family Scholar House, which supports low-income parents attending college, displays her diploma and awards — and has campus contacts and organized to-do files within reach. Credit:  Laura Pappano for The Hechinger Report

Her apartment at Family Scholar House in Louisville, a program that supports low-income parents attending college, is about as different from a dorm as you could imagine. It is spotless and with a level of organization that hints at the demands of her life.  

She wakes every morning an hour before her son for prayer, reflection and to make breakfast. “The night before,” she said, “I have everything organized — his backpack, my purse.” 

There are lists on the fridge — strawberries, spinach, bananas and yogurt to get at Kroger, pulmonology appointments and swim lessons for her son, reminders to update her resume and renew her car registration — and  workspaces for both of them; hers features her diplomas, awards (Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society) and folders of to-do lists.  

“There is a complexity to adult learners. It is really recognizing, ‘What are the circumstances of individual people’s lives?’ If someone is to enroll in college, how do you make it possible for them to attend?”

Laura Perna, executive director, Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania

White, like many adult students, has quality work experience. After graduating from high school in Pulaski, Tennessee, she worked as a bank teller (and was once held up by a robber). After her pay rose by just $1.60 an hour in five years, she took an administrative job at an automotive manufacturer that assembled car headlamps. Her skills got her hired away by a competitor, with more responsibility — and pay of over $50,000 a year. In late 2017, she was laid off.   

“Not having an education, not having that piece of paper,” White said, made her feel vulnerable. Without family to lean on (she was raised by her grandmother), she moved into public housing. She enrolled at Columbia State Community College, tapping federal grants and the “Tennessee Reconnect” adult promise program to pay for school. Savings and a loan covered living costs. 

In May 2020, White earned an associate degree in business administration, with a 3.84 GPA. She finished while helping her son attend school remotely. Recently, she started classes toward a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership and learning at the University of Louisville.  

That degree program is not free. But a key attraction is a course in which students create a portfolio of prior experience — and can earn up to 48 academic credits for it, which saves money and time. Adults with workplace skills such as human resources training or financial management deserve credit for such college-level learning, said Mathew Bergman, an associate professor at the University of Louisville who is a national expert in adult learning and teaches in the program. 

“If we are not doing this,” he said, “it is a social justice issue. Should you not get college credit just because we don’t teach it here?” 

Related: Sometimes politicians’ lofty promises of free college are too good to be true 

Enrollment in this program has more than tripled since 2008, when it was updated shortly after Bergman’s arrival; it now has almost 500 students, a number that  remained steady during the pandemic. Bergman said it is purposely structured to recognize the needs of adults and move them toward degree completion. Some courses are compressed into eight-week blocks; students can attend in person, hybrid or online; there are five start dates during the year and generous credit transfer policies. Students who drop out because of life issues can return, keep earned credits but have their GPAs “started fresh,” Bergman said.  

Traditional institutions have treated adults “as a kind of afterthought,” he said.  It just makes sense to help them return and speed through, said Bergman. “They did not go to school not to finish,” he said. “They went thinking they would finish, and life intervened.”  

One of several buildings for Jefferson Community & Technical College in downtown Louisville, Ky. Credit:  Laura Pappano for The Hechinger Report

This is a fairly new perspective. Higher education experts say many colleges have not considered how they accommodate adult students — or don’t.  

Shasta College in Redding, California, serving a rural region in the northern part of the state, had an eye-opening experience five years ago while planning an adult-friendly accelerated program. When a task force took stock, said Kate Mahar, the dean of innovation and strategic initiatives, it discovered that “we were not set up to serve people who had responsibilities other than school.” 

Courses were held midday, “making it almost impossible to hold a job” and attend full time, which allows students more financial aid. Support offices were open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. And, said Mahar, schedules shifted each semester, so adults had to reorganize their lives. 

Kara Reilly, a hairdresser who has never attended college, meets with an adviser, George Scott III, to register for classes at Jefferson Community & Technical College.  Credit: Laura Pappano for The Hechinger Report

In response, Shasta created a compressed “full-time” schedule of two eight-week courses, predictable class times, advisers for each student and the option to take time off. Overall student enrollments in the program have more than doubled, to nearly 200, and remained steady even during this past academic year. (Eighty-three percent of students are over age 24.) Students have an 82 percent course completion rate. 

One reason for that is the support, said Eric Olson, 44, who works in software sales and earned his associate degree in May. As someone who had never connected with academics, he wanted to “start something and see it all the way through.” 

But in the midst of his studies, he stumbled and had to retake an economics course. His counselors reached out. “Right away they were like, ‘What happened?’ ” he said. A counselor arranged tutoring, keeping him motivated and “feeling that I am not doing this alone.” 

Kara Reilly, a hairdresser, spurred by time off during the pandemic and free tuition from Jefferson Community & Technical College, registered for classes and got a student ID. Credit: Laura Pappano for The Hechinger Report

Otherwise, it would have been easy to drop out. “You get discouraged,” said Olson. “It is very easy to say, ‘You know what? I’m just going to pick this up later.’ ” 

Many adults do go back, then stop out. Some even earn degrees — but leave without getting them. One big surprise at Shasta came as the college worked with Degrees When Due, a project of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a national nonprofit group that seeks to improve higher education access and completion. Shasta conducted an audit of those who’d dropped out despite having earned all or nearly all the required number of credits. It turned out that about 35 percent of them were missing a single required computer literacy class.  

“It had been created a decade ago, when people did not come in with those skills,” said Mahar. The requirement has been removed. As a result of the audit, she said, 258 degrees have been awarded retroactively to students in the past two years. 

The urgency for adults to earn degrees has been underscored by the pandemic, which had the greatest economic impact on those without higher education.  In Kentucky, Aaron Thompson, president of the state’s Council on Postsecondary Education, last fall tweeted an infographic showing that 89 percent of Kentuckians on unemployment lacked a college degree or credential. 

Thompson, whose father “was an illiterate coal miner” and mother only completed eighth grade, but who earned a doctorate in sociology, said raising educational levels is critical to prosperity in the state. “There is a direct correlation between building wealth and having a highly educated workforce,” he said. 

Related: How one country with close parallels to the United States has made college free 

Many states have embraced education attainment goals. (Tennessee’s is “Drive to 55” — to equip 55 percent of Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate by 2025.) In Kentucky, the target is 60 percent by 2030 (“60×30”).  In June, Thompson tweeted a map showing that, at 27 percent, the state’s bachelor’s degree attainment “lags behind the pace of neighboring states.”  

Yet, higher education has been a tough sell in Kentucky. Only about half of high school graduates go on to college, which makes adult education critical, but since 2012, Kentucky’s adult undergraduate enrollment has fallen nearly 50 percent. 

It is a stubborn problem. Thompson said many people believe they don’t need college. Growing up,  “many felt if you wanted to go to college, you were getting above your raising,” he said, adding that the sentiment still lingers. He also thinks people don’t know what’s available, including the state’s “free tuition” for study in some fields. 

A new classroom building at Jefferson Community & Technical College is fitted with machinery for training courses that jibe with the needs of local manufacturers. Credit: Laura Pappano for The Hechinger Report

Last year, he launched a media campaign, tapping hip-hop artist Buffalo “B.” Stille of Nappy Roots, who recently earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Louisville, as a spokesman. The state has partnered with national college completion groups and organized on-the-ground ambassadors. Adult education recruiters attend college fairs to reach parents who come with their high schoolers. Thompson wants adults to know that “we have things to help them get through.”  

Tennessee, which in 2014 created “Tennessee Promise,” the first statewide free tuition program for high school graduates, and has run “Tennessee Reconnect” for adults returning to higher education since 2018, has useful lessons. (A 2020 report showed that among the first adult cohort, 61 percent earned a credential or continued their studies.)  

From the start, said Emily House, executive director of the state’s Higher Education Commission and Student Assistance Corporation, Tennessee underscored the different needs of adults. “We talk about our adult learners as workers who go to school rather than students who work,” she said. The state offers “navigators,” who connect students with services and talk through workforce needs and educational options, but does not require adults to use them. The program leaders press institutions to make adjustments for adults, for instance by opening financial aid offices at night.  

“You get discouraged. It is very easy to say, ‘You know what? I’m just going to pick this up later.’ ”

Eric Olson, adult learner who returned to Shasta College for his degree

Given the complexity of adults’ lives and emotional concerns about school, House said state leaders were “really intentional” in discussing college as broader than the stereotypical four-year undergraduate experience. “When we talk about going back to college, you can go to Vanderbilt,” said House. “But you are also ‘going to college’ if you go get your certificate.”  

For many adults, college feels like too big a mountain to climb. That is one reason Ty J. Handy, president of Jefferson Community & Technical College, Kentucky’s largest community college, believes that “we have had a devil of a time getting students to come.”   

He hopes the college’s “Jump-Start Grant” will change that. There are positive signs,  but it will take more than free tuition. Support matters. 

After Reilly, the hairdresser, finished her orientation, she met with George Scott III, an adviser, in his second-floor office. He walked her, step by step, through registration.  

Almost 35 million adults nationwide have some college experience but no degree. 

They picked classes and planned a schedule. Online Mondays, on campus Wednesdays. She works other days and also needs “mom time.” (She has twin 15-year-old daughters.) The two bantered about enticing English and history classes, but settled on basics: a “transition” math course;  Foundations of College Success (required); and a digital literacy class. Reilly’s first day is Aug. 16. 

She thanked Scott profusely. He printed her schedule. Reilly tucked it into her leather shoulder bag and left to get her student ID. “I just learned how to use a Mac a week ago!” she marveled. 

This story about college for adults was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter. 

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Laura Pappano is an education journalist who also writes about gender and sport. She is a regular contributor to The New York Times Education Life section and former education columnist for The Boston...

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