Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education

Guest Post: Increase Enrollment – Seize The Day

April 08, 2020

By Dr. Cheryl King, Edu Alliance Group Advisory Council

These are challenging times for colleges and universities even before the COVID-19 crisis. Public concern about tuition rates, fewer high school students to fill classrooms, and declining enrollment are just a few of the issues keeping higher education leaders awake at night. I would suggest there is no better time to consider and plan how your institution can serve or better serve adults. The higher education market is changing rapidly, and it's time for us to change as well.

As a former president of a small private college, and years working in education and workforce development at the state policy level, I understand the pressures of increasing enrollment while dealing with shrinking budgets. I propose we seize the day in these challenging times by recruiting and enrolling adults. Millions of adults are unemployed or under-employed across the U.S. because they lack credentials and degrees to compete in the current and future workforce.

Adults without credentials and degrees live in every state. Many struggle with low-skill, low-wage jobs while trying to take care of their families. Some tried college, but for several reasons, they didn't graduate. Some never thought of going to college because they didn't graduate from high school. They are working-age Americans, and their dreams of a better job and a better life for themselves and their kids may not be realized without some form of higher education.

The statistics are staggering. Twenty-four million working-age adults—12 percent of the U.S. workforce—have not completed high school. The number of adults earning a GED is now at an all-time high, but the percentage going on to higher education is embarrassingly low. Some states don't even record this statistic. There are also 104 million adults 25 and older who hold a high school diploma only. Currently, almost a third of U.S. high school graduates do not enroll in college.

There's more. An additional 36 million started college but didn't finish. In just the past two decades alone, more than 31 million adults left college without receiving a certificate or a degree. http://www.NewReport:AmericanAdultsCiteWork-RelatedIssuesAsTopReasonforStoppingOutofCollege.

The Lumina Foundation reports that most of the job growth in the U.S. since 2007 has come from jobs requiring some form of post-secondary education. Jim Clifton, chairman of the Gallup Organization, predicts that by 2025, the United States will need 23 million more degree holders than our colleges and universities will have produced.

It's an interesting, if not challenging, dichotomy. Millions of adults need credentials and degrees, yet enrollment is stagnant. College closures are on the rise due to low enrollment and corresponding financial constraints. Since 2016, ninety-one nonprofit colleges and universities have closed or merged with other institutions. (Education Dive, 2020). The Chronicle, 2020 Trends Report, states that 40 percent of colleges will struggle in the near future. Some of these are smaller schools that live or die on the margins, holding their breath until enrollment goals are met for the next year or two.

It seems reasonable that some of college closures and mergers could be avoided if they embraced the adult student market. The definition of a traditional student living in dorms, eating in dining halls, and playing on athletic teams are changing, with 30 percent of adults in the current college market. But it's not good enough. We can do more. Most of all, let's understand that times have changed and we must change as well, or we risk closing the doors and selling the campus.

There is hope, however, as more adults are in college today, with large online schools such as Southern New Hampshire or Western Governor's University and others serving thousands of adults. But smaller state and private schools can be just as effective with some retooling of their programs and schedules. According to Washington Monthly, the best colleges for adults tend to be regional public universities, private schools, and community colleges. Check out the list of top 10 institutions at or the top 25 schools for adults going back to college at

Colleges and universities have options to consider if they decide to recruit adult students. Following is a sample of initiatives focused on attracting and serving adults, and programs involving partnerships and collaborations. There are many others not included here.

Adult students need access to advisors available 24/7, especially online. There are companies that provide these types of services.

As educational attainment improves, the U.S. skill shortages will decrease, and the economy will increase. Millions of adults will benefit from better jobs. Institutions will benefit with higher enrollment and financial stability.

But there is more to this story than keeping colleges and universities in business. One of life's greatest pleasures is watching graduates receive their diploma with tears of joy, and their family and friends cheering them on from the audience. The joy and the thrill is the same regardless of age.

Get the ball rolling. Seize the day. Higher education attainment changes the lives of graduates and their families—forever.


Cheryl King

Cheryl King is an expert in the field of workforce development has dedicated her career focusing on adult and postsecondary education at the state and national levels. She has held a variety of positions in state government and higher education. They include serving in 2006 as VP of External Relations then selected as President of Kentucky Wesleyan College from 2008-11, focusing on long term sustainability through a highly detailed Strategic Plan, that asked the tough questions. She returned to state government as Senior Policy Advisor for Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education to develop competency-based education options to help adults to be successful and complete a credential or degree. Recently she has worked with the Lumina Foundation Strategy Labs program as a State Advisor to help states achieve the Foundation's goal of 60% of U.S. adults with college degrees, certificates or quality credentials by 2025.

Last Updated: 7/23/2021