Missouri is putting a heavier focus on higher education opportunities for adults.
The Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development created the Adult Learner Network with partners around the state and recently hosted a workshop to identify barriers to adult education processes. One of the department's priority pieces of legislation this session was also aimed at supporting adult education.
"Whenever it comes to adults, we know that they are underserved in higher education," said Jessica Duren, communications director for MDHEWD. "And part of that is due to our institutions not necessarily being ready to help students who don't fit the traditional, coming straight out of high school into college model."
Approximately 1.3 million adults in Missouri have no postsecondary credentials, according to MDHEWD's strategic planning documents. Forty-two percent of white adults and around 28 percent of Black and Hispanic adults in Missouri have earned higher education certificates or degrees, and 46 percent of adults in urban areas and 29 percent of adults in rural areas of the state have.
Adults as a percentage of all Missouri college students have declined 40 percent in the past 10 years, according to the department's strategic planning documents.
"We're talking about a population who can only go part time, who are supporting families of their own," Duren said. "Really helping people who have maybe started college but never finished or even adults who just never went and now are looking to kind of change careers or skill up in order to get a promotion."
She said the department's efforts to support more opportunities for adults to engage with higher education are ongoing.
According to MDHEWD's strategic plan, Missouri is to have the best educational attainment and labor force participation in the Midwest by 2030.
Duren said the state won't reach that goal with just traditional high school students going to college.
"When it comes to educational attainment, we know that the high school senior class population has declined and so that senior class is actually leveling out," she said. "So we can't expect to necessarily increase the number of Missourians with a degree or certificate by just relying on surveying that traditional high school class coming out of high school going directly into college."
Duren said MDHEWD will continue what it has always done to support high school students' transition to college, but it's not enough. The state needs another 220,375 adults with a post-secondary education to reach workforce demands projected for 2030, according to the department's strategic planning documents.
In terms of workforce participation, Duren said jobs throughout the state are requiring more education now than they have in the past.
"So we need to focus on those adults to help them get a certificate or a degree in order to get the high-quality jobs that are going to be sustainable across the state," she said.
MDHEWD launched the Adult Learner Network with higher education and workforce development partners in January. The network is tasked with studying the issue of adult access to higher education and supporting efforts to make colleges and universities more efficient in serving adults.
Participation in the Adult Learner Network is voluntary and open to institutions of higher education and any other collaborative partners that have an interest in serving adult learners, Duren said. The network has 39 members, according to the department's website.
In May, MDHEWD hosted its first Student Journey Mapping Workshop to identify and break down barriers to adult education.
With 12 state colleges and universities participating, Duren said the workshop was designed to share best practices for improving processes and becoming more efficient.
Institutions were asked to review a portion of a process they have that involves the adult student population and look for gaps in communication or barriers to access.
One institution reviewed the process between when a student applies and when they enroll. After mapping out the process, Duren said the institution found it lacked a prompt for accepted students to access financial aid.
Ultimately, she said, the purpose was for participants to return to their colleges and universities with easier processes for adults to engage with the institution.
Reception among institutions of higher education has been positive, Duren said, as many know adults need to be served, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic rattled the labor force.
The department received 18 applications from colleges and universities wishing to participate in the workshop, Duren said, but it was capped at 12. She said the department is hoping to host similar workshops in the future.
On the legislative front, renewing the Fast Track Workforce Incentive Grant -- a program designed to cover costs of adults going back to school for a degree, certificate or credential in a high demand area -- was a priority of MDHEWD this legislative session.
Grants are reserved for Missouri adults 25 or older who make less than $40,000 annually, haven't been enrolled in school for at least two years and haven't earned a four-year degree. Award amounts are for any remaining tuition or fees not covered by other state or federal student aid programs.
The Fast Track program was originally scheduled to sunset in 2019 but a bill passed by the Missouri General Assembly extends it through 2029. The bill also expands grant funding to adults pursuing approved training and apprenticeship programs. It also replaces a provision that required participants to live and work in Missouri for three years after getting their credential with a requirement that participants live in the state for two years before getting the grant.
The Legislature appropriated $4.7 million for the Fast Track program in the state's budget this year.
The state budget and Fast Track bill await Gov. Mike Parson's signature to be approved.