Adult Promise

In 2016, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) received support from Lumina Foundation to assess the interest in and feasibility of creating promise-type aid programs geared toward non-traditional, adult students. These programs promise to cover the cost of tuition and fees for eligible students. Initial results from this feasibility study indicated interest in developing these programs.

With continued support from Lumina Foundation, SHEEO is now working with 15 states to design and implement promise-type programs for adult students through 2020:

  • Cohort one: Indiana, Maine, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Washington
  • Cohort two: Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Texas

These programs will offer the promise of free college tuition and fees for a specific subset of students in a state. Like all successful promise programs, these states are incorporating key supports and services in addition to the last dollar scholarship component of the program. For example, some programs will include a strong mentoring component designed to help students navigate postsecondary education and succeed. There are promise programs underway in several other states, but most are geared toward recent high school graduates and exclude adult students.

Additional Resources for Adult Promise States (Updated March 2020)
Adult Student Research

Hidden in Plain Sight: Understanding Part-Time College Students in America; Marcella Bombardieri, Center for American Progress This report provides information on the characteristics and experiences of part-time students attending college in the US. It includes profiles of individual students and stories from their perspectives, data about part-time students, and thoughts on how to work with part-time students.

Certified Value: When do Adults without Degrees Benefit from Earning Certificates and Certifications?; Strada Education Network and Lumina Foundation This report analyzes the impact of non-degree credentials on earners’ lives. The data are from the Strada-Gallup Education Consumer Survey.

Developing State Policy that Supports Low-Income Working Students; Rosa M. García, Lauren Walizer, Carrie Welton, CLASP This report from CLASP offers a framework for states to work with low-income, working students – particularly students of color. The report highlights the importance of listening to students’ experiences in the policy development process as well as the need for policymakers to expand their understanding of postsecondary education to be able to create policies that will help all students.

Building Guided Pathways to Community College Student Success: Promising Practices and Early Evidence from Tennessee; Davis Jenkins, Amy E. Brown, John Fink, Hana Lahr, Takeshi Yanagiura Using the self-assessments from Tennessee’s community colleges, this report describes the how they are implementing guided pathways reforms. The report focuses on four areas: (1) mapping pathways to student end goals, (2) helping students choose and enter a program pathway, (3) keeping students on path, and (4) ensuring that students are learning.

A Major Step: What Adults Without Degrees Say About Going (Back) to College; Public Agenda In this brief, Public Agenda presents the results of research conducted through a survey of adult prospective students to determine how they are thinking about higher education.

Ten Principles to Effectively Serve Adult Students CAEL has developed Ten Principles for Effectively Serving Adults, areas of focus that enhance adult learner retention and completion. 

Workforce Development

Career Pathways in Career and Technical Education; Anna Cielinski, CLASP This policy brief gives an overview of federal definitions of career pathways (as defined in Perkins, HEA, and WIOA), program of study (in Perkins), and the relationship between the two. The brief also offers recommendations for state career and technical education leaders.

Advancing Racial Equity through Career Pathways: Community-Centered Solutions; Duy Pham; CLASP This brief provides support for the assertion that advancing equity is the purpose of federal investments in education and workforce investments. It provides federal and state examples for how this can be done.

Better Together: Career and Guided Pathways; Judy Mortrude, CLASP This brief describes the relationship between career pathways and guided pathways. In doing so, it helps policymakers and practitioners understand that they are complementary rather than duplicative.

Defining On-Ramps to Adult Career Pathways; Judy Mortrude, CLASP This brief describes the services and partnerships that can form programs to provide adults with significant barriers to educational and economic success a career pathway. It provides an example from Minnesota (based on survey results) and offers an analysis of the program.

Building Better Degrees Using Industry Certifications: Lessons from the Field; Michael Prebil, Mary Alice McCarthy at New America This report presents the results of research on embedding certifications into degree programs. It includes a landscape analysis of embedded certifications, the results of the research (both a Lumina Foundation survey and New America’s own research), an in-depth look at Broward College, and thoughts on policy development and directions for future research. 

Financial Aid

Talent Investments Pay Off; Lumina Foundation This report looks at the return on investment in Discover’s tuition reimbursement program (144%). The return on investment is due to higher promotion, transfer, and retention rates, along with lower rates of absenteeism.

50-State Comparison: Adult Inclusion in State Financial Aid Policies; Education Commission of the States This resource provides state-by-state information on policies around the inclusion of adults in state financial aid programs. There are individual state profiles as well as a link to Education Commission of the State’ state financial aid policy database.

Prior Learning Assessment

50-State Comparison: Prior Learning Assessment Policies; Education Commission of the States This resource provides information on the Prior Learning Assessment policies in all 50 states.

Chart the Path to Adult Success with PLA; Council for Adult and Experiential Learning This e-book provides information for institutions on how to use Prior Learning Assessment to help adult students succeed.

State Policy Approaches to Support Prior Learning Assessment; HCM Strategists and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning This report provides a landscape analysis of Prior Learning Assessment policies across all 50 states. It provides examples and recommendations for policymakers interested in implementing PLA policies.

Adult Learners Guide to PLA; American Council on Education This is a resource for adult learners interested in knowing more about PLA and how to use it to earn credit for their learning that has already happened.

Other State Policy

State Finance Policy Best Practices; Paper prepared for the National Commission on Financing 21st Century Higher Education, by Martha Snyder, Brian Fox, and Cristen Moore, HCM Strategists This series of reports investigates various aspects of state higher education financing policies and strategies. Authors provide overviews and recommendations from the field.

 State Innovations for Near Completers; Lexi Anderson, Education Commission of the States This report provides a landscape of state policies regarding near completers and how states are reaching out to this population.

Program Examples

Achieve Your Degree (Ivy Tech) Ivy Tech Evansville has approximately 30 employer partners. Employees are offered convenient registration times, advising, and tuition deferral. Many of these partnerships are the result of personal relationships, which has been the entry point between the institution and partners.

Detroit Drives Degrees (Detroit Regional Chamber) Detroit Drives Degrees is a regional effort to increase degree attainment in the Detroit region (which is a large part of SE Michigan). Included in employer outreach efforts is a survey of employers and elevating employers that offer tuition reimbursement. They have also been able to secure debt forgiveness from institutions in the region. Detroit Drives Degrees also is putting together an employee survey that will assess employee needs specifically.

55,000 Degrees — Louisville The 55,000 Degrees initiative is Louisville’s effort to increase degree attainment. As part of this initiative is Degrees Work, which is a free resource for working adults who never completed their college degree. Degrees Work consists of seven colleges and universities that have come together to support returning adults. Support includes coaching and resources for returning adults.

Jet Blue Scholars JetBlue partners with a number of online education providers to help their crewmembers attain a college degree. Through this program, JetBlue employees are given financial incentives and support to return to college.

UpSkill Houston Established by the Greater Houston Partnership, UpSkill Houston is working to expand the talent pipeline for industries that drive the region’s economy.

EcO Network The EcO Network seeks to create collaborations of education, community, and industry stakeholders across 10 counties in Southeast Indiana. The goals of EcO Network are to move residents up at least one level in their education, coordinate a regional learning system, and catalyze leadership and collaboration.

Adult-Focused Organizations and Initiatives

The Graduate! Network Through developing partnerships with colleges, government, labor, workforce and economic development, and other community organizations, The Graduate! Network seeks to re-engage adult learners. The Graduate! Network helps to ensure that adult learners have access to the resources and support they need to successfully complete a college degree.

The Graduate Network’s Bridging the Talent Gap Bridging the Talent Gap is involved in work across the country to better connect employers to degree attainment efforts. With over 3,000 participating employers, Bridging the Talent Gap helps to assess education and talent gap needs, engage employers and provide strategies, and drive results through data-driven partnership development.

T3 Innovation Network The US Chamber of Commerce Foundation runs the T3 Innovation Network, which consists of over 150 organizations that have formed a network that implements a series of projects that leverage data and technology to create seamless transitions from education to career pathways.

Talent Management Pipeline The Talent Management Pipeline initiative is led by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation. Through this initiative, state and local leaders, business association, employers, and economic development agencies are trained to form partnerships with education and training providers based on workforce demand.


CBE Network (CBEN) Resources The CBEN website provides a variety of resources focused on competency-based education. These resources may be helpful for states thinking of ways to ensure that the needs of adult learners in the state are being met.

Digital Promise Digital Promise is a network approach to closing the digital gap and providing more equitable access to learning and information. This website provides a number of resources focused on innovation and technology in improving education. 

Association for Nontraditional Students in Higher Education The Association for Nontraditional Students in Higher Education’s mission is to provide scholarships, academic resources, and supports, and motivation to adult learners. It also seeks to build the network of administrators, faculty, and staff that will help adults succeed. 

Project Contact: Christina Whitfield, senior vice president and chief of staff