Higher ed is changing. Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer and Chronicle veteran, connects you with the people, trends, and ideas that are reshaping it. Delivered on Wednesdays.

November 12, 2018

From: Goldie Blumenstyk

Subject: Colleges Are Taking Adult Students’ Needs More Seriously. What’s the Next Step?

I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week:

Grading progress on the climate for adult students.

The needs of adult students are becoming more top-of-mind throughout higher education. While many colleges still have a long way to go before they could honestly call themselves adult-friendly, I’ve noticed a marked uptick in interest and activity over the past year — and that isn’t just because I became more attuned to the topic after reporting and writing my report on ”The Adult Student.”

I’ve also just become more optimistic about a possible solution to one of the most intractable obstacles lower-income adults face when they’re trying to return to college to complete a degree: getting transcripts and credit for their prior college work if they owe money to that institution. (More on that below.)

I’m reflecting on this now because this week I’ll be speaking at the annual conference for the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, in Cleveland. Since attending CAEL’s 2017 meeting, I’ve learned a ton about the financial, logistical, and academic challenges adults face. I also developed an appreciation for the important role that communities and employers can play in smoothing the pathway to college. I call that “building networks,” and in Cleveland on Wednesday, I’ll be joined by some experts to talk about ways to tap into and nurture that ecosystem.

Over the past year, I also learned a lot about what employers can do on their own to improve educational options for their employees. The most notable approach: covering tuition upfront rather than as a reimbursement after the fact, which can be a financial barrier for lower-wage workers. It’s been edifying to see that practice carried out in several education partnerships announced over the past year by big employers like Walmart, Disney, and FedEx. Uber’s recently announced program with Arizona State University offers tuition upfront too.

SXSW EDU conversation

As for that obstacle concerning past-due bills and transcripts ... well, honestly, that’s not solved yet. But a conversation that began at a SXSW EDU conference session in March gives me hope. At SXSW I was interviewing Hadass Sheffer of the Graduate! Network, an organization that counsels adults and helps to connect them with appropriate colleges in more than 20 cities. Sheffer described the transcript barrier. Everyone in the room could see her frustration that college leaders hadn’t yet figured out a way to fix this.

Minutes later, Catharine Bond Hill, managing director of Ithaka S+R, a higher-ed consulting and research organization, politely stood up and suggested a solution. Just encouraging students to negotiate to get their bills reduced doesn’t seem sustainable, especially for students who have little leverage because they aren’t looking to return to their former college. But what if there were some sort of intermediary organization that would lend students the money they need to pay off their debts and get their transcripts? It sounded like a creative solution to me.

It still does. So last week, I checked back with Hill and Sheffer to find out the status of that idea. It hadn’t moved much, but the question got their gears going. In a series of email exchanges, Sheffer noted that recent attention on the new Warrior Way Back program at Wayne State University, which forgives past-due bills up to $1,500 for students who qualify, was a sign that the problem is getting recognized. She also noted that other colleges have tried versions of this, but few seemed to have methodically evaluated their efficacy.

Hill then outlined her idea. In a nutshell: An intermediary could pay the college for a student’s debt, hopefully at a very discounted rate. Then the student would have a loan with that intermediary, one that wouldn’t have to be repaid until they got their degree. If they failed to do so, the intermediary would lose money on that loan. Hopefully, enough loans would get paid to make the risk worthwhile.

Under this scenario, everyone wins. The students’ former colleges wouldn’t get all they were owed, but they’d get something rather than nothing. The students would get their transcripts and wouldn’t end up wasting their credits, and then could finish college more quickly. The intermediary could make enough money to keep the program going. As Hill put it, “it is kind of like buying up distressed debt.”

What would it take to get this idea off the ground? I don’t know. Obviously it’s not simple to create or execute. And as she noted, no one really knows the extent of the problem. The bad-debt issue is much discussed anecdotally, yet in policy-making circles, there’s precious little actual data on the size of a typical student’s past-due bill to their college, the overall amounts colleges are owed, or whether finding a way to pay off these debts would really make a difference in getting students back to college.

Yet Hill, who was previously president of Vassar College and still moves comfortably amid the education-philanthropy world, seemed to suggest that this lack of knowledge might also be the ticket to getting beyond the talk. One way to move the needle, she said, might be to set up a formal evaluation — perhaps even a randomized controlled trial, or RCT — that would test the effectiveness of such a program on a broader scale. “There ought to be a way to figure out the financing,” Hill said. “I know there are a couple of foundations that like to fund RCTs, to help make better policy decisions.”

The email conversation ended there. But Sheffer and Hill plan to continue to talk. And maybe some policy shop or foundation will take up the cause.

Election update.

Of the candidates with higher-ed ties whom I was watching last week, two out of three lost: Richard Cordray, the former head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in his race to be governor of Ohio, and Tracy Mitrano, formerly director of internet culture, policy, and law at Cornell University, who was seeking a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. The winner, in another congressional race, was Donna Shalala, the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and leader of the Universities of Miami and Wisconsin at Madison.

Quote of the Week.

“Still, it was impossible to be a black kid at a mostly while school and not feel the shadow of affirmative action. You could almost read the scrutiny in the gaze of certain students and even some professors, as if they wanted to say, ‘I know why you’re here.’ … It planted a seed of doubt. Was I here merely as part of a social experiment? Slowly, though, I began to understand that there were many versions of quotas being being filled at the school.”

From Michelle Obama’s Becoming, her newly published biography.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know at

The veteran reporter Goldie Blumenstyk writes a weekly newsletter, The Edge, about the people, ideas, and trends changing higher education. Find her on Twitter @GoldieStandard. She is also the author of the bestselling book American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know.