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Completing the Degree, Reviving the Workforce

Many adults who attended college at some point but ended up leaving come to regret their decisions. And many still have the desire to go back for their degree, sensing the importance of possessing one in the present and future job landscape.
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Written by Kyle Coward

According to a 2010 Georgetown University study, 22 million jobs in the U.S. will require a postsecondary degree by 2018. Unfortunately, at the current national graduation rate, there will be a shortage of 3 million workers for those jobs by that time.

As a major locus for jobs, the nation's cities stand to be hit especially hard by the deficit of educated workers. Given the contribution of a city's workforce to local economies, this is a crisis that can no longer be ignored.

Underscoring the economic importance of having educated workers in cities -- otherwise referred to as the "talent dividend" -- the Chicago-based organization CEOs For Cities states the following:

Using data from 2010, each additional percentage point improvement in aggregate adult four-year college attainment is associated with a $856 increase in annual per capita income. Raising the median adult four-year college attainment rate of the top 51 metro areas from 30.7 percent to 31.7 percent would be associated with an increase in income of $143 billion per year for the nation.

Many adults who attended college at some point but ended up leaving come to regret their decisions. And many still have the desire to go back for their degree, sensing the importance of possessing one in the present and future job landscape.

In Chicago, where our organization the Council for Adult & Experiential Learning (CAEL) is headquartered, it is estimated that there are over 300,000 adults who have some college experience, but never finished. On a local level, several private foundations and workforce development organizations (including CAEL) have joined forces to help move these adults back into education and on to the workforce with a city-wide initiative, Complete The Degree.

Launched last summer with support from the city of Chicago, the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, the McCormick Tribune Foundation, Chicago Community Trust, and Bank of America Foundation, Complete The Degree provides free one-on-one consultation and group workshops to returning adult students, assisting them with options for attending college, attaining financial aid resources, and in strategies for finishing coursework en route to a degree. A collaboration of the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, Women Employed, One Million Degrees, and CAEL, Complete The Degree also includes the support of various Chicago-area colleges and universities in a commitment to better serving working adults.

Advisors of Complete The Degree are particularly trained to assist adult learners in gaining academic credit for skills acquired outside a classroom -- an evaluation method better known as Prior Learning Assessment (PLA), of which CAEL has long been a proponent. For those who may not have easy access to resuming their studies in a traditional classroom setting, PLA can be very helpful in the pursuit of course credit towards a degree.

In spirit, the Complete The Degree program is a back-to-school model not only for Chicago, but for 50 other major metropolitan areas vying for CEOs for Cities' Talent Dividend Prize, which next year will award $1 million to the region recording the greatest increase in postsecondary degrees per capita over a four-year period. For Clifton Williams, who serves as the center director for Complete The Degree, the award serves to further affirm the importance of having more graduates in a future workforce, and reinforces the need for undertakings like Complete The Degree.

"Complete The Degree, as well as similar initiatives across the country, offer meaningful solutions for cities and metro areas looking to help adults get better skills for better jobs," Williams says. "As more people from the business community and the higher education community come on board to what we're doing, we are confident that our mission and message will spread."

President Kennedy once said, "We will neglect our cities to our peril, for in neglecting them we neglect the nation." If we neglect to improve the educational needs of those in cities and fail to produce more graduates for our workforce, we will likewise neglect the economic needs of both cities and the nation as a whole, falling further behind other countries in the developed world. But this does not have to be so, and with initiatives like Complete The Degree, adult learners, businesses and higher education institutions are in a great position to come together for the benefit of the nation's workforce not only in the present, but especially for the future.