Working-Class Adults: An Untapped Market of Education Consumers

By Andrew Hanson

Andrew Hanson is a senior research fellow with Strada Institute for the Future of Work.

Colleges and universities, the institutions that have historically defined higher education in America, are apprehensive over the prospect of declining cohorts of newly minted high school graduates that have flocked to their campuses in growing numbers for decades. The writer William S. Burroughs once said “If you’re not growing, you’re dying,” a truth higher education administrators have undoubtedly taken to heart. Colleges have been able to grow their enrollments not because they were developing new and innovative ways to attract new students, but because of a larger youth population, an increasing high school graduation rate, and a skyrocketing demand for a college education.

In the coming decades, colleges and universities will no longer be able to rely on demographics to fill their classrooms and residence halls: declining birth rates have led to smaller graduating classes, and the historical increases in high school graduation rates have largely flattened. Highly selective public and private colleges with massive endowments will be fine, as their business model uniquely depends upon turning prospective consumers away, rather than expanding their market share. Colleges and universities pursuing growth strategies, on the other hand, need a new business model.

Fortunately, the idea that there is a shortage of prospective students is, as ASU President Michael Crow has stated, “a fallacy.” In fact, we estimate that there are nearly 100 million working-age adults in America who don’t have a college degree, nearly 44 million of whom are not earning a living wage of $35,000 annually or in a family with at least $70,000 of income. Compared to the 20 million undergraduates American colleges and universities enroll each year, there is plenty of room for growth.

To be sure, working-class adults in America are economically and socially distressed. Large shares of these Americans are in poverty, on food stamps, and have public health insurance plans like Medicaid. One out of three don’t own a computer, and one out of five don’t own a smartphone. Even more grim, the Nobel prize winning economist Angus Deaton has underlined the rising mortality rates in white working-class communities, driven by so-called “deaths of despair”: premature deaths resulting from suicide, opioid addiction, and liver disease. In fact, they are the only population for which mortality rates are increasing.

There is little we could do that would help working-class adults more than providing them with the skills, experiences, and relationships they need to become gainfully employed. Work empowers people and brings with it dignity and self-respect. In America, it is the primary means through which we contribute to the social good and connect with our fellow citizens. Work provides more than money: it engenders meaning, purpose, and value to one’s life. At the same time, it is the most cost-effective, sustainable strategy we have to continue to move more Americans into the middle class.

Unfortunately, most colleges and universities are simply not designed to serve working-class adults. But a number of innovative learning providers like Arizona State University, Western Governors University, BYU-Pathway Worldwide, Penn State World Campus, Southern New Hampshire University, and Purdue Global are reimagining how to deliver online education to promote working-class adults’ persistence, completion, and labor market success and developing new models and support structures designed to meet adult students’ needs.

These so-called “mega-universities” don’t appear to be concerned about a shrinking consumer market. ASU serves 95,000 students, 28,000 of whom are enrolled in their online programs, while Western Governors University, for example, utilizes competency-based education to serve more than 97,000 undergraduates, primarily comprising adult learners aiming to advance their careers. WGU’s innovative model has already led to positive educational and career outcomes. For example: 91 percent of grads believe their education was worth the cost, and 97 percent of employers say WGU grads meet or exceed their expectations, while 94 percent say they would hire another WGU grad.*

While these institutions are serving hundreds of thousands of students themselves, we need more institutions to reimagine and redesign how they deliver learning to better serve working-class adults. Building a learning ecosystem that better serves these Americans is the fundamental challenge we face as we prepare for the future of work.