Why We Need To Pay Attention To Black Adult Learners

In the United States, there is a large number of Black students who have stopped out of college before earning their degrees (about 2.4 million), with about a million of them having earned 90 or more credits (“near completers”). Of these, about 366,000 are former Historically Black College and University (HBCU) students, with about 175,000 being near completers.

With this issue in mind, The Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) and historically Black Delaware State University (DSU) have announced the creation of the TMCF-DSU Joint Center for HBCU Non-Traditional Completion, to be housed at DSU. The Joint Center sits on a foundation of evidence gathered from a three-year pilot program for near college completers and adult learners — a program funded by grants from the Kresge Foundation and Ascendium Education Group.

Outcomes from the pilot program will be used to inform ongoing program development and efforts to scale the program to other HBCUs that are seeking to improve their recruitment and support of adult learners who have some college but who have not earned their degrees. TMCF and DSU have learned over the course of 4 years how to support these students so that they can return, complete their degrees, and achieve their professional or personal goals, such as getting a promotion at work, attending graduate school, or a personal sense of achievement. The Joint Center will also integrate lessons from TMCF’s National Black Talent Bank (TM), which serves Black youth seeking to enter the workforce directly from high school, and then supports educational achievement afterwards.

“Since their founding, HBCUs have always served diverse student populations,” said TMCF President & CEO Harry L. Williams. “As a result, there’s a collective knowledge about how to support learners whose journey to graduation veers from what society calls the traditional path. Studies have shown that despite serving non-traditional students, HBCUs outperform on measures related to economic mobility. This Joint Center is just another example of the important leadership role HBCUs play in higher education and in the upskilling of the nation’s workforce.” He added, “Our initial outcomes for our Near Completers pilot program have surpassed our goals – with 55 students graduating from DSU as of Spring 2023. There is a lot of enthusiasm within the HBCU community for this program, and we are excited to create a vehicle for sharing our best practices in serving HBCU students and the broader Black community.”

Terry Jefferies, Assistant Dean of the School of Graduate Adult and Extended Studies at DSU, will lead all programmatic efforts of the Joint Center. She was an important manager of the Near Completers Pilot Project. According to Delaware State University President Tony Allen, Jefferies brings considerable experience to the role, which he considers a highly important one for HBCU students nation-wide. From his perspective, “It is becoming increasingly important for HBCUs to share best practices and innovative strategies in support of the students we serve.”

Many HBCU students in the past have stopped out of college yet consider themselves part of the HBCU community. Allen stated, “Our goal is to help them get across the finish line and earn their degrees so that they can increase their earning potential and advance in their careers.” He added, “There are 500,000 Black online learners, many of whom are full-time working professionals — moms and dads. They went to college, but for whatever reason, they never finished. They want their degrees, particularly those who started at a beloved HBCU. Today, of those 500,000 learners, only 20,ooo are getting back on track at an HBCU. We believe our collective community can significantly expand our net for these worthy students and ensure they get the quality of care they deserve.”

Research shows that HBCUs have always served “non-traditional” students, who have taken non-traditional educational journeys to earn their college degrees. Why? Because most HBCUs primarily serve low-income, first-generation, and often adult learners. According to TMCF’s Williams, “I always say that we take care of our students. Together we care for students in ways that support and prepare them for their future opportunities. These educational strategies are focused on both educational achievement and future professional success – both are strategies for closing the racial wealth gap through education. The Joint Center will better position HBCUs to serve more students in new and non-traditional ways.”

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