How adult learners are not getting 21st-century skills

Who are adult learners and what takes them back to school? COD Newsroom, CC BY

More and more adults are going back to school to learn new skills. The National Center for Education Statistics data show a 7 percent growth in college enrollment for adults over the age of 24 between 2005 and 2015. This is projected to increase to 12 percent by 2019.

A large percent of these are community college students who are either enrolled in two-year associate’s degree programs or technical education certificates, or are simply taking classes to learn new skills. In spring 2016, over 2.1 million adults over the age of 24 were enrolled in two-year public community colleges. These students represent approximately one-third of all adult students enrolled in colleges.

As researchers studying adult literacy, we have been concerned with the pervasive issues affecting adults with low basic skills. A community college is a great entry point for adult students. And an associate’s degree can be very valuable – both to individuals and the economy.

But an issue we are concerned about is whether community colleges give students the skills they need to succeed in the 21st-century workplace.

Coming back to school

First, let’s look at who are the adult learners and what brings them back to school.

Adult learners could be heading back to school to acquire more complex skills to keep up with the changes in the job market. Most organizations these days are looking for candidates with the capacity to think critically and communicate clearly. They want candidates who are able to solve complex problems.

Community colleges bring a diverse group of students. Maryland GovPics, CC BY

Furthermore, technology-rich environments also require high levels of digital and problem-solving skills.

Research shows that however competent individuals may be as users of technology like email, texting and Facebook, 61 percent of U.S. adults are relatively weak at problem-solving in technology-rich environments. Solving relatively simple problems using digital tools to search, sort, and email information from a spreadsheet, can be challenging for these adults.

So, adult learners often come back to school to build their reading, math and digital literacy skills.

Why community college

Community colleges offer several advantages for adult learners. Students could come from a variety of backgrounds, academic histories and ages.

They could be first-generation college enrollees, displaced from their previous careers, returning veterans or wanting to earn certification in order to ensure job security.

Course schedules at community colleges are flexible. Their tuition is significantly less than four-year colleges. According to the College Board (2015), the average tuition and fees for a community college student was US$3,435, as compared to $9,410 per year for in-state students at a public four-year college.

Barriers to getting digital skills

However, community college students face many barriers when it comes to acquiring digital skills.

Digital skills include being literate in both information and technology skills. Individuals should be able to find information and evaluate it for its reliability. They should also know how to select and use technology like software, platforms, devices and applications.

Many community college students do not have adequate digital skills when entering their program. A 2013 survey showed that 59 percent of adults with a high school diploma or less had low digital skills and 44 percent had medium level digital skills.

This means that many community college students begin at a disadvantage. They are less likely to be ready to use digital technologies. In a digital society, this could limit their success in school, their access to civic and health information, and their participation in the 21st-century workforce.

Another barrier is access. While 68 percent of Americans now own a smartphone, a 2015 Pew Research Center reports that only 47 percent of those with a high school diploma as their highest educational attainment have broadband access.

This, in particular, is a major disadvantage for community college students. Forty-eight percent of community college students are the first in their families to attend college. Half of them come from households where the highest educational attainment is a high school diploma or less.

Furthermore, many community college students may not have a laptop or desktop computer to access technologically heavy educational resources such as video-based materials. These students may lack financial resources to buy up-to-date technology.

Digital skills are important in today’s workplace. Alper Çuğun, CC BY

Most important is community college curricula. Some colleges integrate elements of digital learning through their curricula, and others work with employers to define and teach specific technological skills needed for certifications. However, there is not enough evidence to show that all community colleges address these areas in their curricula.

Consequently, a majority of community college students risk graduating without gaining any digital skills. A recent study of community college students reported that 52 percent of current community college students had never taken a computer class or been specifically instructed in digital skills in a stand-alone class.

21st-century education for a 21st-century economy

In July 2015, President Obama proposed the American Graduation Initiative to invest in community colleges. The Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, a law enacted in 2010, includes $2 billion to be spent over four years to help community colleges improve and provide career training.

However, we believe that merely investing money in community colleges won’t help American students and workers get the critical thinking skills they need to succeed. What needs to be addressed are issues of access, digital readiness and curriculum.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges,

“If community colleges are to contribute powerfully to meeting the needs of 21st-century students and the 21st-century economy, education leaders must reimagine what these institutions are – and are capable of becoming.”

Digital literacy is becoming an increasingly important component of a well-rounded education. It is considered by most colleges as essential.

That means community colleges should offer digital literacy courses as well as integrate technology into teaching and classroom or homework activities.