The economic headwinds we face right now are clear — what determines your fate in the emerging Ohio economy is your knowledge, skills and abilities. Now more than ever, Ohio must get serious about helping working-age Ohioans maximize their education potential. It is the foundation for the economic well-being of individuals, families and communities.

The Ohio Department of Higher Education’s Adult Learning Working Group was charged to identify and share best practices for maximizing every Ohioans’ education and knowledge. I had the privilege to co-lead this effort with Dr. Barbara Green from Bowling Green State University.

In Ohio, more than one million people have some post-high school training, but no degree or credential. Many stopped their educational journeys to devote more time to jobs or family. Most sacrificed their own long-term career potential to help their short-term family needs. The barriers to helping them return to their educational dreams are numerous and significant.

Adult learners thinking about returning to college are foremost concerned about the cost and if the investment will translate into higher wages. They also need to know the specific educational pathway and commitment to reach their desired degree or credential as they balance the complexities of family, work and other commitments.

Helping adult learners say “yes” to higher education happens everyday. The Adult Promise Working Group, listening to over 150 students, employers, college and other stakeholders, found many adults who overcame barriers to create a better life for themselves, their families and their communities. Many Ohio institutions have developed and implemented effective strategies within the context of their mission.

Our key learnings include 24 recommendations (see Four key learnings are communication, flexibility, relevance and equity.

Adult learners aren’t going to college for “an experience,” but for better outcomes. They want their degree paths to be clearly laid out, class expectations clearly articulated and instructors to be accessible for questions. In short, they expect the professional, efficient communication they practice at work.

At the same time, work and family obligations aren’t negotiable. They bring unpredictable responsibilities and their college programs and instructors must be able to accommodate these realities. Flexible class schedules, work deadlines and credit for current knowledge and experiences all are important. As importantly, the need for flexibility doesn’t take the same form for every student.

Adult learners also need relevance. Their training and education must be rooted in employer needs and help adult workers seize new opportunities to lift themselves higher.

Lastly, we must use an equity lens. Not everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed. Those differences vary across our state. In northwest Ohio, those barriers include food insecurity, child care, transportation and substance abuse. We must reshape our institutions from recruiting “college- ready” students to making our college “student ready” for our residents.

At NSCC, we are examining the Adult Learner report to adapt proven best practices within our mission culture and local culture. We’ll make recommendations to our board as we implement our fiscal year 2023 Strategic Plan.

The stakes are high; we must act now. Creating the ecosystem for adult learners to get the skills they need to succeed not only sets them up for success, but will strengthen the overall quality of life in northwest Ohio communities for years to come.

Dr. Michael Thomson is president of Northwest State Community College, Archbold.

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