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Finding What Working Adults Want in a College, and Helping Them Get It

Recently, Calbright College, with collaboration from Compton College, conducted a survey of Los Angeles County adults, many without college degrees, who are actively looking for education and training opportunities to improve their careers. There are an estimated 6.8 million Californians like that, and it hurts them economically: a majority of this community earns half as much as the average college graduate. 

Calbright conducted the survey to help determine what opportunities they’re looking for, how to reach them, and how to best support them.

The results were presented in October at the California Adult Education Program (CAEP) annual summit, by Tamika Connor, Calbright’s senior vice president for strategic initiatives; Binh Do, director of research, data strategy and effectiveness; and Ethny Stewart, project manager for workforce and partnerships.

“As higher education institutions, when we think about who we normally talk to, we talk to people who are already at our doors. Who are already here, who already have knowledge of who we are,” Do said. “But that’s not the entire addressable market. That’s not the potential adult learning population who could benefit from Calbright, or any other adult education institution. If we want to help that population, we have to talk to the people who aren’t here, who are still looking, and find out what they need. We have to talk to people who are disenfranchised, who are from marginalized populations, who are all too often left out of these conversations.”

Half of those surveyed said they would like to start a training program within the next 12 months; over half of them said that a certification would improve their career. They see the opportunities. But can they connect with them?

Calbright staff presented at the 2023 California Adult Education Program summit. Tamika Connor, Binh Do, and Ethny Stewart talk about the research we’ve done and what we can do next to support adults looking for higher education to help their careers.

What Students Want In Adult Education

More than half the people surveyed said that the following characteristics are “extremely important’ or “very important” in a program:

  • Prepares you with skills of the future that will help get you hired for roles across industries. 
  • Provides job ready certifications that employers want that could allow you to earn more while still in school.
  • Enables you to get interviews and callbacks that you otherwise might not have gotten.
  • Takes into account the skills and/or college credit you already have to shorten your time to completion.
  • Allows you to fast track and progress more rapidly through the program and shorten time to completion.


That’s what potential adult students want. But the most significant finding may have been this: over 41% of the adult population who are looking for education to improve their career say they have nowhere to go.

Specifically, according to the survey, adult learners say “there are no current training or academic programs in their area that meet their needs or that they are not aware of any.”

“That’s really concerning,” Do said. “People want to work, they want to work meaningful jobs, but they do not know how to gain entry into new occupations and sectors. Almost half just don’t believe that there is anything out there that works for them.”

But it also represents an opportunity, because the kind of programs they’re looking for do exist and are available statewide.

“Adult learners need a place to go, want a place to go, and we can serve all of them by intentionally designing an ecosystem where they can connect effectively with the systems that best serve their needs, whether that’s a conventional or unconventional college or approach,” Do said. “We can get the adult learners where they want to go.”

A New Model of Community College For Adults Is Already Here

Calbright College, created by California in 2018, is an example of the kind of program many people are looking for. Calbright is California’s first and only statewide community college district. Available online, its classes are open to all adult Californians with a high school degree – no one is turned away.

Calbright’s programs are developed in collaboration with industry professionals and the learning content is tied to industry-recognized certifications or benchmarks. This means Calbright is specifically teaching the skills and practices that applicants need to get hired, and that help new employees thrive on day one. 

“We’re constantly iterating around the needs of the adult learners and industry,” Connor, who leads strategic initiatives at Calbright, said. “With every program, our faculty are updating the content in real time to reflect the durable skills, technologies, and  industry needs.”

Calbright also uses a Competency-Based Education model that is flexible and allows students to quickly move through areas that they already have experience in, fast tracking their completion, or to take extra time on areas and skills that are unfamiliar to them.

Calbright’s Career Services program also supports students by helping with networking, developing resumes and LinkedIn profiles designed for the industries they’re applying to, and providing practice interviews, among many other services.

This is what potential adult learners said they’re looking for, which suggests that more needs to be done to let them know that it exists, and is accessible to them.

Building Bridges for Better Careers

Connor said she isn’t surprised to learn that there’s a bridge that needs to be built between the programs that are available and the people who need them.

“Part of this work started because President Curry at Compton College recognized, along with us, that there needs to be better transitions between community colleges and the populations we serve,” she said. “We went in asking: ‘what are the gaps?’ “How can we improve our systems?’”

Calbright specifically, she said, still needs to get the word out. 

“Even at the CAEP conference, we were getting questions from our sister colleges about who Calbright is and whether we’re a public institution!” she said. “We are unconventional, we’re designed to be, but we are absolutely a public college, part of the California Community Colleges system, and we will continue to the work of ensuring our sister institutions understand Calbright’s statewide value add to the CCC system in support of adult learners.”

Creating A Network Of Support

But that work, she emphasized, shouldn’t be done in isolation. It should be part of a collaborative effort, across both educational institutions and employers, to create a conduit that connects workers with the skills they need, and then connects those workers with employers looking to hire people with those skills.

According to the Calbright and Compton College survey, 44% of employers experienced difficulty finding qualified applicants during the past year. There’s a need to solve this problem for both workers and businesses.

“What adult learners are looking for is someplace where they can gather the skills and the experience. Employers tell us that they want to hire for the skills, but they are not finding candidates with the skill levels and experience that they want,” Do said. “However, as higher education institutions, or adult learning providers, we can create that space, that connection, we can create a pipeline to connect those training opportunities with those employers.”

That’s the good news: it turns out everyone wants this. We have the institutions and the knowledge in place to make it work.

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