Learning, All Grown Up

By Miles Rubens

Key takeaways from data on adult learners in New England …

Educational opportunities for those age 25 and older allow people already in the workforce to improve their skills, employment opportunities and wages in ways that they may not otherwise be able to.

Changing economic conditions, which increasingly limit opportunities to those with postsecondary degrees, mean that the incentives for pursuing education are different today than they were in the past when these individuals were of traditional student age. Adult education opportunities respond to these changes and promote a labor force better suited for employment in this new economy.

Adult education is especially important in New England due to the region’s aging population. New England’s median age is 41, compared with the national median age of 39. Because of this, older workers play a more pronounced role in the regional economy, and adult education takes on added significance.

Adult learning is an important focus of NEBHE. In 2019,  the board designated enhancing and expanding postsecondary opportunities for adult learners as one of four strategic priorities.

In a new series of fact sheets, NEBHE provides updated data on adult learners in the six New England states, highlighting economic conditions, universities that serve adult learners, educational attainment figures, and labor market information.

Among key findings:

  • Large differences in attainment by geography. There are large differences in educational attainment rates across different parts of each state. Sparsely populated rural areas, in particular, have very low attainment levels, compared with more urban and wealthier parts of the region. For example, in Chittenden County, Vt. (where Burlington and the University of Vermont are located) 51% of adults 25 and over have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with only 16% of the same group in Essex County, located in the state’s very rural Northeast Kingdom area. Plans to increase educational attainment should focus on providing opportunities for people in less accessible and more isolated areas through methods like more flexible schedules or remote and hybrid education models.
  • Some college, no degree. Regionwide, 17% of adults 25 and older have some college experience but no degree. This population holds only a very small wage advantage over those with only a high school diploma, and endures similar unemployment rates. Helping those with some college credit finish their degrees would allow more individuals to see the significant wage and employment gains enjoyed by people with college degrees at a lower cost and in a shorter time than focusing on those without any college at all.
  • High-skilled labor demand. High-skill industries—such as finance, professional services, management and technology—are among the highest-growth fields in the past five years in many New England states. For example, from 2015 to 2020, the region posted a net gain of 56,920 jobs in management and 50,920 jobs in business and financial operations. Skills in accounting and auditing are also among the most frequently listed in job postings in many of the states, with 136,150 postings in New England listing auditing and 124,149 postings listing accounting from July 2020 to June 2021, according to the labor market data company Emsi. Tailoring educational opportunities including both degrees and shorter programs to these industries and skills will improve students’ employment prospects.
  • Massive demand for nursing. From July 2020 to June 2021, nursing was the most listed skill in the region with 192,213 mentions in job postings. Varying levels of nursing qualifications, such as Certified Nursing Assistant, Licensed Practical Nurse, Bachelor of Science in Nursing, Critical Care Registered Nurse, and Nurse Practitioner, appeared repeatedly across states as the most sought-after qualifications in online postings. Especially given the context of an aging population and a persistent pandemic, providing adequate training to adults for not just nursing positions but a wide range of related roles (such as professors to teach these nursing programs, nurse practitioners to assist doctors, and nursing assistants) should be a priority of adult education programs in the region.

Understanding these findings will help allow more targeted and effective adult education programs that will better serve the workforce needs of adults and the region as a whole.

Miles Rubens is a policy and research intern at NEBHE. 



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