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Effort to help adults finish college degrees takes shape

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Alabama Commission of Higher Education is asking the Legislature to help increase the number of Alabama adults with college degrees by incentivizing them to return to the classroom.

Senate Bill 175 would establish the ReEngage Alabama Grant Program to provide grants to assist adults returning to college to complete degrees in high-demand professions.

“Alabama is among the lowest in the country as far as degreed individuals on a per capita basis,” Sen. Arthur Orr, sponsor of the bill, said. “So, if we can find those people where they are and encourage or entice them to return to school and get their degree to improve their standard of living by achieving a higher education, I think that’ll pay dividends for us as a state.”

The bill is part of ACHE’s “All in Alabama” campaign to retain current and former Alabama graduates and keep highly qualified and educated people in the state’s workforce. The statewide initiative has three programs that target specific segments of current and former students: Retain, recall and (re)engage.

ACHE says (re)engage connects former students with Alabama’s colleges and universities by working to remove academic and financial barriers that might prevent students from completing their degree.

Of working Alabama adults, 21.6% have some college without a degree, according to the 2022 Employment Outcomes Report from ACHE earlier this year.

The program would grant up to $3,000 at the university level and $1,500 for community colleges for full-time students per academic semester. The grants can be renewed as the student remains eligible.

“We identified that there was a need, and we identified how much money possibly could be brought forward. Then, we filtered it by high demand, high wage (jobs for individuals) that had almost half of their college time done,” Jim Purcell, ACHE executive director, told Alabama Daily News. “There is a market of people who want to get back into the workforce, or they want to upskill themselves so they can get a promotion out there.”

Purcell told Alabama Daily News that ACHE proposed $4.5 million in funding for the scholarship aspect of the program and an additional $1.5 million to serve as one-time startup funding to prepare schools to work more specifically with adults.

How much money the Legislature dedicates to the program will be decided when the 2024 education budget starts moving, likely early next month.

“We want to make a significant enough appropriation, but we can also control it as far as how much,” said Orr, who chairs the Senate education budget committee. “It’s not an open-ended number where we have to guess, we can see what the participation level is…

“And in my mind, a starting point would be somewhere between $5 million and maybe $10 million to start the program with it may require less resources but we would also have a carry forward component.”

There is currently no publicly funded, financial incentive for adult learners with some college credits to return to college to complete their degree.

Grants will be awarded to Alabama residents who have completed half an associate or bachelor’s degree linked to Alabama’s high demand workforce needs.

Adult learners, at least 25 years old, who have not attended a postsecondary education institution for at least two years prior to returning to school are eligible to apply.

“The legislation targets adults, a population that has committed to stay in the state. We know from literature that adults who do complete college usually stay more local,” Purcell said. “So we know that our investment there matters and that we will probably get a greater return on that.”

Between 2017 and 2021, students over the age of 25 comprised nearly 15% of the total baccalaureate-seeking population at Alabama’s public universities, with just under 20,000 enrolled per year on average, according to the Alabama Statewide Student Database.

ACHE says keeping more graduates in Alabama will improve the state’s educational attainment and workforce capacity, resulting in a better economy and quality of life for all Alabamians.

“One of the things we have to do is build a human capital in our state,” Purcell said. “It seems to me that the population that is in Alabama, that has committed to stay here, should be given an opportunity to be a part of this economic revolution that we’ve seen happen in Alabama over the last two decades.”

The bill received a favorable report in the Finance and Taxation Education committee last week.

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