North Carolina: Reengaging adult learners to meet statewide attainment goals

Success Factors

North Carolina has 6 out of 6.


There must be a vision for what a state wants to achieve, from governors or other key policy makers.


Leadership vision must be backed by a clear policy agenda, based on evidence, that is adopted and implemented.


As policy is being implemented, aligned supports – including funding – are provided to increase the chances for success.

Strategic Alignment

Intentional coordination is made across policy and funding to better connect work in Early childhood, K-12, Postsecondary, and Workforce.

Stakeholder Engagement

Efforts to improve student success are backed by stakeholders with a vested interest in improved outcomes (parents, students, the business community, advocates, philanthropies).

Sustained Commitment

Improving access to opportunity for all young people requires efforts to be sustained, often over many years and across political administrations.

Key takeaway

By focusing on reengaging adult learners, North Carolina can help thousands more individuals earn a college degree. More than 1.1 million North Carolinians have at least some college but no two- or four-year degree. These can become degree holders with the right supports.  Tennessee Reconnect, an initiative to support adult earners return to higher education, proved this in Tennessee. By following a similar roadmap, an additional 30,500 North Carolinians could earn a college degree in the coming years.


MyFuture NC projects that 67% of jobs will require a high-quality credential or post-secondary degree by 2030, but as of 2016, only 49%, or 1.3 million, working people ages 24-44 have completed that level of education. At this current rate, North Carolina is expected to fall short of labor needs by at least 400,000 individuals. 

Recognizing that gap, MyFutureNC set a goal of 2 million North Carolinians earning a credential or postsecondary degree by 2030. To meet this goal, leaders need to focus policy on re-engaging adult learners. State leaders can build on existing momentum and consider additional policies to support those with some college and no degree – such as a statewide prior learning assessment (PLA), fully integrating data systems such as Finish First NC across all state public institutions, and targeting funding to remove barriers for adult learners.

Data Highlights

The need to target adult learners is underscored in data from MyFutureNC and the George W. Bush Institute’s State Education and Workforce Pipeline Tool:

  • 70% of young adults in North Carolina aged 25-34 have at least some college credits, compared to the national average of 69%.
  • Of the 18-to-24-year-olds in the workforce in North Carolina, just 4% are earning above the median wage.
  • Far fewer North Carolina students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds complete degrees in six years or less than do students with greater economic stability (33 percent versus 58 percent).
  • Fewer than half of North Carolinians ages 25-44 have high quality credentials or postsecondary degrees.
  • While Asian and White residents consistently outpace the state attainment average, Black and Hispanic residents consistently fall below that average.

How it can happen

To achieve the goal of credentialing more adult learners in the state, better strategic alignment is needed to leverage efforts already underway. Once that happens, stakeholders should develop a clear policy agenda and target resources to improve adult learner outcomes. Finally, a sustained commitment will be needed to better serve this population to ensure the goals of MyFutureNC are met. Stakeholder engagement will be an important factor in ensuring that there is buy-in for aligning all of the statewide initiatives and programming geared toward adult learners. A critical party of stakeholders will be statewide leadership, who will need to continue to set the policy agenda. Lastly, it is critical that student supports are provided to this important population to ensure their success in achieving a postsecondary credential.

Strategic Alignment

A number of collaborative efforts are already underway in North Carolina aimed at targeting resources, programming, and other supports to adult learners. For example:

  • The governor appropriated $97 million dollars of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to launch Project Kitty Hawk, a tech startup partnering with the UNC System aimed at serving adult learners through online learning.
  • The UNC System intends to update its strategic plan this year, which presents an opportunity to elevate the adult population as critical to the development of the future workforce. The new UNC system plan will include strategies and tactics for priority populations including adult learners, transfer students, and enlisted military members and veterans.
  • The Better Skills Better Jobs initiative, a pilot program funded in part by myFutureNC aimed at increasing adult learner outreach and supports in community colleges, is expanding to include five more colleges to add to the five existing colleges. Additionally, a workforce advisory council is launching to examine non-degree credentials by convening community colleges and workforce representatives.
  • The Belk Center for Community College Research and Leadership published a policy brief on adult learners.

Policy and advocacy groups, state agencies, and other entities focused on this population should remain collaborative and align their priorities where possible to maximize potential impact.


The Belk Center for Community College Leadership recently published a policy brief on adult learners. This report concludes with a set of recommendations for statewide initiatives and policies, such as:

  • Expanding the Finish First data collection to include all public 2- and 4-year institutions in the state to quickly identify students who are close to or have already earned a credential.
  • Creating a database of course equivalency to ensure students can accurately transfer completed courses.
  • Targeting and recruiting adult learners who have earned college credit but have not completed a credential.
  • Establishing a central information hub to support adult learners, similar to Tennessee Reconnect.
  • Removing financial barriers for adult students by waiving old debts and fines, reevaluating institutional financial aid eligibility, providing student grants, and establishing employer partnerships.
  • Leveraging partnerships between workforce and higher education agencies to ensure alignment and high value pathways from post-secondary to the workforce targeted to adult learners.

Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) is a way to measure learning gained outside a traditional academic environment.  Including a PLA policy in an overall strategy to increase adult degree attainment helps include the range of experience typical of adult learners, easing the re-entry to formal education and reducing time to degree. In addition, leaders can look to states such as Washington, that have deployed reengagement strategies specifically targeted at adult students to meet the workforce needs in the state.

Sustained Commitment

Catching up adult learners – and then sustaining a high level of higher education attainment – is a long term state commitment. Outcomes from targeted investments will not be realized immediately. In order to achieve milestones and continue to monitor the sustained commitment to the adult learner population, it is critical to gather and analyze disaggregated data on this population to monitor progress, learn from experience, and adapt or expand policies accordingly.

Stakeholder Engagement

Stakeholders should begin rallying behind The Belk Center recommendations and a statewide PLA policy. An aligned and engaged coalition of stakeholders can play a critical role in ensuring statewide policy is successful.


Statewide political and institutional leadership will play an important role in aligning all of the efforts currently underway on reengaging adult learners into the postsecondary space. Leadership will be essential to adopt a statewide PLA policy.


In addition to lessening financial barriers for adult learners, institutions should evaluate the current suite of student supports (like childcare, class timing, advising specific to adult learners, etc.) available specifically for the adult learner population. By expanding supports or eligibility for institutional aid, adult learners will have more access to the wraparound services they need to be successful.

Why it matters

More than half of future employment opportunities in North Carolina will require some postsecondary education, but less than half of North Carolinians ages 25-44 have high quality credentials or postsecondary degrees. Employers are at risk of not being able to find skilled workers to meet their needs and North Carolinians are at risk of not having the skills required to compete in the labor market. North Carolina has the opportunity to target adult learners that may have become disengaged in the state’s education system, to fill this gap and ensure more citizens are on track for prosperous, self-determined lives.