Reporting on the connections between education and work

Adults are choosing programs with no clear labor market demand in Cleveland

In places like Cleveland, the economic future increasingly rests with adult students—but a new study finds that many of those at the metro’s largest university are choosing majors that have no direct labor market connection.

Adult students are becoming an ever more important market in Ohio, as the population of recent high school graduates drops. It’s one of 10 states, concentrated in the Midwest and Northeast, on the forefront of what is expected to become a national decline in new graduates after 2025. 

But the adult population in large parts of Ohio, at least, remains largely untapped. That’s according to a recent report from College Now and Cleveland State University. It’s based on findings from CSU and the Cleveland Talent Hub, an initiative backed by grants from the Lumina Foundation and the Kresge Foundation.

The report, released earlier this month, highlighted some troubling narratives at Cleveland State in northeast Ohio:

  • Its adult student population, defined as age 25 and older, has dropped at a faster rate than its overall population for the past 10 years
  • White adult students are more than 12 percent more likely to stay enrolled and eventually graduate compared with Black students
  • Large number of adult students are choosing majors that aren’t aligned with in-demand jobs
  • And that’s especially true of Black adult students, who enroll at higher rates in programs like social work and lower rates in math-related majors

The big idea: The findings mirror national and state trends at similar universities, the groups wrote. But they provide a level of granularity—an on-the-ground look at the mismatch between economic needs and educational uptake—that gets lost in national and even state-level numbers. Large institutions in other states, including the Virginia Community College System and Ivy Tech in Indiana, also are getting more serious about mapping program offerings and enrollment to regional job demand.

By the numbers: In the new report out of Cleveland State, the mismatch is particularly striking between the majors adult undergraduates are most likely to choose and the fields from which employers want to hire. Many adult students are choosing to major in programs that are not clearly linked to specific labor market outcomes. And among the fields with clear lines to the labor market, enrollment is concentrated in ones like social work that are relatively low-paying and often require advanced degrees.

This is particularly true for Black students at the university. Almost half of Black adults are concentrated in the same 10 majors, and only one of those, nursing, leads directly to an in-demand job.

Major mismatch in northeast Ohio

Tables list the “top 10” majors selected by white and Black adults at Cleveland State. Highlighted majors indicate those that lead directly to northeast Ohio’s in-demand jobs.

Why it matters: That mismatch contributes to patterns of inequality that the researchers noted. Black and Latino residents, for example, are significantly underrepresented in 19 of the 20 most “in-demand” occupations in Cleveland State’s home county of Cuyahoga. And adults overall in the county have lower educational attainment than local industry demands. If the state wants to hit its goal of having 65 percent of Ohioans with a degree or credential by 2025, there’s work to be done on this front, said Julie Szeltner, College Now’s senior director of adult programs and services.

“To remain competitive in the regional and national economy, it is imperative that Ohio increase its statewide attainment rate,” Szeltner said in a release. “We will need both traditional and adult learners to meet this ambitious goal; non-degreed adults are a key piece of this attainment puzzle.”

What’s next: Cleveland State has ambitious goals of its own, too. The university’s multifaceted CSU 2.0 plan wants to boost total enrollment to 20,000 students by 2025.

“Expanding and tailoring services for non-traditional students, and closing the achievement gap for students of color, is critical for our university, our community and our state,” said Jonathan Wehner, CSU’s vice president of enrollment management and student success, in the release. “Plans are in place to do just that, and we’re pleased with the progress we’ve already made in improving first year retention rates for underrepresented students.”

When it comes to further increasing the number of adult students at CSU and other universities, the report laid out several recommendations. The list includes creating an Office of Adult Student Services to support that specific group, offering more scholarships for adults and developing a “significant” effort to partner with local employers.

Amy Morona is the higher education reporter for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus.

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