I have had the pleasure of handing diplomas to some unusual people at commencement. Still, it was startling to see the child walk toward me. He was 9. He looked younger.
He wasn't accepting the diploma for himself, of course. It was for his dad, on active duty in Iraq. He'd sent his son, living on a base in Germany, to get it for him.
"Congratulations," I said. He and his dad deserved it.
At University of Maryland University College (UMUC), our graduates are America's adult learners. Almost all work full time. Half are parents. Their diplomas often reflect the work, sacrifice — and triumph — of an entire family.
The personal achievements of our students, though, are the exception rather than the rule. They highlight a national problem. UMUC graduates often begin studying at the "unsung heroes" of higher education: America's community colleges. But each year, thousands of community college students who want to earn a bachelor's degree — particularly those from modest-income or minority families — cannot continue. America's four-year colleges don't accommodate them.
This is not just a tragedy for them. It is a tragedy for our nation. Researchers estimate that baby boomer retirements will soon leave our workforce 14 million shy of the number of four-year degree recipients we need.
What stands in the way? First, cost. Students paying about $2,500 a year for community college tuition cannot always afford the $7,000 average for public universities, much less the $26,000 average for private institutions.
And there are other obstacles. Four-year colleges and universities often reject credits from transfer students. They schedule courses at challenging times for students who work. Sometimes they cannot even provide enough parking spaces for people rushing from work to class.
When it comes to higher education, we have made progress getting more people to the starting blocks. Yet these barriers keep too many from crossing the finish line.
How do we change? Once we understand that 65 percent of adults in this country do not have a college degree, it becomes obvious that our traditional public colleges and universities need to adapt. They must work with community colleges to remove obstacles and create pathways for these students to earn degrees that employers value. These partnerships should focus on three things.
First, community college students need more than courses. They need a plan, worked out when they start, that identifies the courses they must take to qualify to transfer to a four-year institution. These plans may include credit for on-the job learning. They may include credit for more affordable courses taken elsewhere.
Second, community college students need help paying tuition when they transfer to four-year institutions. Any student who maintains an average above 3.0 should qualify for a scholarship. Almost all scholarship students go on to earn a four-year degree. Perhaps companies whose employees are working for a four-year degree will contribute.
Third, many students need the flexibility of online courses if they are going to graduate while working. Yes, customary face-to-face classes are valuable to the university experience. But universities need to mix and match a variety of learning approaches so students can pick the ones that work best for them.
People who say that traditional methods work best should talk to Sarah English.
Ms. English earned 26 college credits while her children were small and received a degree from Maryland's Montgomery (Community) College. But would those credits apply toward a four-year degree?
After researching her options, Ms. English came to UMUC. We accepted all of her credits and awarded her a community college transfer scholarship. Her employer gave her tuition assistance.
"I got more than the scholarship," she says now. "I was at school part-time and work full-time. I needed flexibility. I got that, too."
Thousands of students are like Ms. English. They want the education that modern technology makes possible. They need the boost to their earning power. And America's future depends on their success.
The Sarah Englishes of the world do not need to change. We do. The goal of every university must be to leave no motivated adult behind.
Susan C. Aldridge is president of University of Maryland University College, offering online and classroom-based instruction to more than 90,000 working adults worldwide.