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What Adult Learners Tell Us About Building a Brighter Future for Education

Amy Wimmer Schwarb

Director of Content

Strada Education Network

A woman who didn’t finish high school yet aspires to attain the college degree that always seemed out of reach.

A registered nurse with an associate degree who quit her job to help her children with virtual learning but hopes to soon continue working toward her bachelor’s.

A U.S. Army veteran who earned multiple certifications in a stagnant industry and could retire with his peers — but wants to learn and apply new skills in his final working years. 

They are all different — different needs, backgrounds, ambitions, motivations, barriers. And even though they all are looking for education that takes them to the next step in their life goals, making education work for them can seem daunting, given their diverse life experiences and the complexities of balancing work, family, and education.

Yet research from Strada Center for Education Consumer Insights — based on conversations with more than 350,000 Americans about their postsecondary education experiences — shows they are more alike than different when it comes to what they need from education

Here, a selection of working adults share their personal experiences which brought them to a decision to more education or training. Each one is a reminder that an individual’s decision to enroll is accompanied by a flurry of emotions, fears, and complexities.

WHAT A LEARNER NEEDS: Some guidance, mentoring, and confidence

Finally, Dusty Smith thought back in 2017, she had found a  way to get the college education she never had. After 20 years of working in food service, the restaurant chain for which she worked as a manager offered a discount rate at an online university. “I was super-excited. I got my student loan, and I’m like, OK, I’m going for it,” Smith recalls.

Then she logged in for the first time.

The online portal intimidated her, but she managed to maneuver through it, found a video containing the lecture, and completed her first assignment. Still, she felt alone and out of place. That’s where her college dream ended — until the next semester, when she borrowed more money and tried again, only to once again drop the class.

Like about half of Americans, Dusty Smith feared she had been out of school too long and wouldn’t be able to succeed in the classroom.

“I was so flustered and so frustrated,” she says. “I needed guidance. I needed structure. I hadn’t been in school in 20 years, and I had never been in online school.”

She left the experience less confident than ever. Smith was plagued by a fear of failure and concern that she had been out of school too long.

For Smith, the piece she needed in her educational experience was academic and career guidance — someone who could help her navigate her program. A couple of years later, she found the confidence she needed not far from her home in an Anderson University program designed to support working adults. 

“It’s all laid out so I can plan my educational journey,” Smith says. “They’ve not left me hanging. They’ve provided me with such guidance.”

Today, Smith is considering a major in nonprofit leadership. And this year, with some of her classes moving online during the COVID-19 pandemic, she found she can succeed even in a virtual environment — because she knows where to turn for help when she needs it.

WHAT A LEARNER NEEDS: Relevant coursework toward a meaningful career

Willard Hughes always pursued work he found meaningful. He appreciated the preparation for life the U.S. Army gave him in his first nine years after high school. It taught him to plan, to deal with people, and to manage life’s changes.”

He transitioned to civilian life with a job in nuclear maintenance at the Savannah River Site, a U.S. Department of Energy-owned nuclear reservation near Augusta, Georgia. It was the early 1980s, when a large number of electricity-generating nuclear reactors were still coming online in the United States. Hughes’ career was a specialized field that required him to constantly recertify his skills through ongoing training.

When his wife died in 2010, Hughes returned to his home state of South Carolina but continued in the nuclear energy field. Plants shut down for maintenance periodically, and Hughes was dispatched throughout the country on maintenance teams that worked during scheduled outages.

But the nuclear industry began to change and contract. “We used to go to a plant for six months, then three. Now they try to do an outage in 30 days,” says Hughes, who said he continually retrained because each plant had its own specifications. “And they’re closing down more and more of them.”

Hughes began to consider why he enjoyed that work for so long. “When I was in the military, I was a radio repairman, so I was troubleshooting,” he says. “In the nuclear business, you’re more or less troubleshooting — it was a different field, but it was a continuation of what I like to do.

“I like working with people,” he continues. “I like helping.”

After a long career in maintenance, Willard Hughes is pursuing an information technology certification that would allow him to continue helping people and trouble-shooting.

Hughes now is enrolled in an online program that will certify him to be an information technology specialist. When he completes his training — provided through Goodwill Industries of Upstate/Midlands South Carolina — he hopes to find a job as a help desk assistant.

“I’m the type of person who can’t keep still,” Hughes says. “As long as my brain and body are working, I want to keep going.”

WHAT A LEARNER NEEDS: Applied learning experiences

Tiarra Barrera Hammond always had the drive to continue her education. “In high school, I filled out my own application, got my SAT done. I arranged the whole thing,” recalls Hammond, who grew up in Atlanta. “And when I got accepted, I was so happy — but my mom was not. She didn’t fill out my FAFSA. She didn’t know what to do.”

Disillusioned, Hammond spent her high school graduation money on a plane ticket to Los Angeles. She got a job in retail, then worked at a call center. Still uncertain about her future, she was considering a move home to Atlanta when she learned she was pregnant.

Hammond was single and alone when she delivered her first child at age 21. But words from a kind nurse who helped her with the delivery changed her outlook: “We are going to have a beautiful baby today.”

Tiarra Hammond was inspired by a nurse who helped deliver her baby, but she never imagined she could train to work in health care herself.

That experience inspired Hammond to reimagine what her future might look like. “I just liked the feeling that she gave me, and I saw what she was doing in her life,” Hammond recalls. “It was a cool way to have an impact on people’s lives.”

The path ahead for Hammond and her new daughter wouldn’t be simple. They lived briefly with a friend, but Hammond felt like they were in the way. So Hammond and her baby started  sleeping in another  friend’s car in a big-box  store’s parking lot while her friend worked her shift. “I’m homeless with my baby,” Hammond realized. “I cannot believe I got here, but I got here.”

Hammond’s turning point came when she and her daughter were accepted into a low-income housing complex in Long Beach, California. Goodwill Industries staffed an office within the complex, and a counselor invited Hammond to take a skills and strengths assessment.

The assessment led Hammond to health care and a certified nursing assistant program. And once that certification was under her belt, she kept working toward becoming a registered nurse. The A she earned in anatomy — her first prerequisite class for the nursing program at Long Beach City College — gave her the confidence to continue.

Hammond completed her associate degree, and was working as a registered nurse and toward her bachelor’s at the advent of the COVID-19 crisis. One day, she hopes, that bachelor’s degree will help her advance her nursing career, perhaps as a manager. But as they are for many learners who’ve adjusted their plans during the pandemic, her own education is on hold for now.

She now has four children and a husband, and — like millions of other working parents nationwide — has spent 2020 juggling the responsibilities of work, family, and virtual learning.

“I’m a mom, a wife, a housekeeper, the cook,” Hammond says. “When COVID came, it was just kind of like, I have to see who needs what, and I’m more for the family right now.”

WHAT A LEARNER NEEDS: A completed degree

In the Mississippi River town where Jacque McCoy grew up in the 1970s, factory jobs were plentiful: furniture manufacturing, food processing, and steel fabrication, among others.

As a result, McCoy’s parents never pressured her to attend go to college. “You could be a factory worker and make $45 or $50,000 a year and buy relatively good homes at a good cost,” she says. “That was good money — so they never said, ‘You need to get an education.’”

That didn’t stop McCoy. She headed to the University of Iowa after high school, and though she changed her major a few times and started her family while in school, she still graduated in six years with a bachelor’s degree in social work. She found a job in her field in Muscatine, Iowa, the hometown where she always had hoped to settle.

Soon, McCoy decided she wanted to complete another degree. In the early 1990s, with two children at home, she started law school, again at the University of Iowa. McCoy nearly had one class remaining in her coursework when she got a job offer that lured her back to working full-time.

From vocational and technical credentials through postgraduate degrees, learners who complete their program are more likely than those who stopped out to believe their education was worth the cost and valuable to their career.

Her work was meaningful, helping people break the cycle of poverty through sustainable factory jobs or training. But time and again, she was struck by how even the most skilled workers couldn’t succeed in the workplace because they lacked a support system — backup plans for childcare, for instance, or transportation to work when their car didn’t start.

“What I have found is relationships mean a lot in how you move from education to employment and how well you advance in employment,” McCoy says. “I think there is just a strong link between getting people better prepared educationally for their job and getting them prepared socially.”

She never abandoned the idea of finishing her law degree, even as her family and career responsibilities grew. “I tried calling maybe 10 years later, and I couldn’t get past the registrar,” McCoy says. “The response was very, ‘I don’t know; we’ll have to see.”

Then, just a couple of years ago, the types of relationships McCoy had worked to help her clients develop came into play for her: The Iowa law professor who had led the last class standing between McCoy and her law degree was speaking in Muscatine.

McCoy told her former professor that she still owed her a final paper. The professor shared the story with the law school dean, who called McCoy to discuss how to get her to the finish line.

Suddenly the idea that has defined much of McCoy’s career — the notion that relationships and networks matter as much as technical know-how — was playing out in her own life.

That paper, now 27 years late, will be complete within a few months. And so will McCoy’s law degree.

Willard Hughes, Tiarra Hammond, and Jacque McCoy are members of New Profit’s XPERT Worker Advisory Board, which is co-designed with Accenture and Goodwill Industries International, where workers’ voices are helping guide social innovations through the Future of Work Grand Challenge.