Never Too Late: A Foundation's Latest Investment in Adult Education – Inside Philanthropy


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Intent on increasing the number of adults with a college degree or other high-quality certification, the Lumina Foundation recently partnered with six states to advance educational opportunities for adult residents.

The Adult Promise initiative is part of Lumina’s goal to boost the portion of adults with a degree or certification to 60 percent by 2025. To advance this goal, the funder doled out $2.5 million to California, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, North Carolina and Ohio.

The six were selected among 25 applicants from 22 states. To qualify for the grants, states had to demonstrate that they offer financial aid to adult students, are committed to fair and just education outcomes for people of color, are ready to make systemic changes to benefit adults, and have secured buy-in from stakeholders like employers, state colleges and universities, community organizations and state leaders.

The initiative awarded grants to the Foundation for California Community Colleges, the University of Hawaii System, the Idaho State Board of Education, the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, a partnership between the University of North Carolina System and the North Carolina Community College System, and the Ohio Department of Higher Education.

This new cohort of states builds on an initiative Lumina launched last year. The first group of Adult Promise states included Indiana, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Washington. All together, the foundation has committed $6.5 million to the initiative. It’s the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Lumina’s efforts to bolster post-secondary attainment.

Studies show some progress. As of 2016, the portion of adults with degrees or advanced certifications hovered just shy of 47 percent, according to the Stronger Nation study funded by Lumina. The 2016 number was up from just under 46 percent the year before, and way up from the about 38 percent of adults who had post-secondary certifications back in 2008.

The good news is that slowly but surely, the country is making progress. The bad news is that progress is probably too slow to reach Lumina’s 60 percent goal by 2025. At the current pace, the country would fall short of Lumina’s benchmark by about 10.9 million people.

The numbers are more troubling when broken out by race and ethnicity. As of 2016, nearly 42 percent of working-age adults had an associate’s degree or higher. At that time, about 62 percent of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and about 46 percent of white Americans held post-secondary degrees.

However, that percentage dropped to 30 percent when the study looked at African Americans. Among American Indians, 24 percent had at least an associate’s degree. Hispanic Americans fared even worse. Just under 22 percent had post-secondary degrees.

Closing the gap among those groups will be key for Lumina to meet its 2025 goal.

At the time the study came out, Jamie Merisotis, Lumina’s president and CEO, said, “The secret to individual and societal success is talent—the knowledge, skills, and abilities of our citizens—but right now, our nation lacks sufficient talent to meet the demands of the global job market.”

“Many of those who see education beyond high school as valuable and essential aren’t able to attain postsecondary credentials in today’s environment,” he said. “Closing that gap, or increasing attainment equity is an economic imperative, and will require a shift in the way we think about higher education to include and better serve non-traditional learners.”

This most recent initiative aims to do just that. Adult Promise works to engage adults without prior higher education experience and building pathways for them to get there. Those adults make up one of three groups Lumina is targeting to reach its goal of boosting the number of adults with degrees or certifications by 2025.

The other two groups Lumina focuses on are young adults from ages 18 to 22—traditional college age—and adults who took some college courses, but left before graduating. By focusing on increasing the representation of these three groups among post-secondary credential holders, Lumina hopes to achieve its 2025 goal.

Related: These Higher Ed Funders Are Backing “Talent Hubs” to Close Gaps in Education and Equity

To reach those groups, Lumina has gotten creative. Past partnerships include one with the University of Virginia to use text messages to make the financial aid system more transparent for students. The initiative targeted what educators call the “summer melt,” which refers to students who get into college, but fail to show up in the fall—often those from poor families, or who would be first-generation college students.

Experts attribute the falloff to the complexity of forms and information students need to apply for financial aid, secure housing and enroll in classes. Through texts and offers to connect prospective students with counselors to guide them, the University of Virginia hoped to demystify some of that process.

One of Lumina’s more ambitious projects of late is its partnership with 17 cities that it deemed “talent hubs.” Each of the cities was picked for efforts to cultivate environments that attract and retain talented adults, especially students of color, first-generation college students and those coming from low-income families.

As part of the 2017 initiative, Lumina and the Kresge Foundation gave pairings of post-secondary institutions and local foundations or nonprofits $350,000 to work with one of the three groups of potential students listed earlier to increase college attainment.

On clear display here and in the Adult Promise initiative is Lumina’s penchant for identifying places with favorable conditions for boosting post-secondary outcomes and accelerating the work with funding. With the talent hubs, Lumina found cities that were already exceptional when it came to attracting and retaining talented people, especially among marginalized groups. To participate in Adult Promise, states had to satisfy several preconditions—mostly proving an existing commitment to increasing post-secondary achievement and advancing education equity.  

Getting to its stated goal of 60 percent will be tough for Lumina. Identifying regions already moving in the right direction will help the foundation’s dollars stretch a bit further. With such a tall order, every little bit helps.

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