For adults who fall out of the education system, it can be hard to get back in. This group faces a unique set of obstacles. Whether it is family issues, illness or financial problems, there are dozens of ways life can get in the way of people continuing their education.
Advisers at College Now, a Cleveland nonprofit organization, are helping adults who are unemployed or underemployed build educational pathways to better careers. They provide free help for walk-in clients at their Resource Center at Tower City — Level Three. College Now serves about 2,000 adult learners a year, and the organization wants to see that number grow.
“Our services are out there and free to the public,” says Lee Freidman, College Now CEO.
College Now may be best-known for its work with high school students — about 25,000 a year — whom they help access and finance post-secondary education and credential programs. Whether serving younger students or adult learners, College Now works to find the right fit. For some, a four-year university is the answer, while others may need a two-year nursing program or an 18-month welding apprenticeship. They all are viable pathways to good-paying careers.
College Now uses a “pathways” approach. Advisors evaluate clients’ career and educational goals and interests, and help them find college and/or training programs that can eventually lead them to in-demand jobs in their areas of interest. College Now also helps clients find the financial aid they need for training or educational degrees. College Now advisors will continue to meet with clients to make sure they can find and access the programs or education needed to retain their jobs and advance their careers.
“You don’t want to prepare for and earn a degree in something that does not have a career at the end of it,” Friedman says. “We use a case management model — one hour at a time.”
Only 30.5 percent of residents in Cuyahoga County age 25 or older hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to U.S. census figures.
“There is a tremendous number of adults in our county who might benefit from more training,” says Friedman. “We are ‘match making’ and advising them to help plan a career path through education.”
Employer needs for a strong well-prepared workforce continue to grow.
A five-year study called WorkAdvance, funded through a public-private partnership, looked at the issue of workforce preparation in four areas of the country and studied 698 people in Northeast Ohio. Its results point out the region’s immense workforce needs.
“Employers continue to cite finding prepared, reliable talent as one of their biggest challenges,” it states.
Friedman identifies these “in-demand” industries as manufacturing, financial services, allied health, information technology and customer service across many different sectors.
Deborah Vesy, president and CEO of Deaconess Community Foundation and a College Now board member, explains the shortfalls of previous approaches to employment counseling.
“Clients would receive minimal job preparation and would often get into low-paying jobs which, typically, they would not retain,” she says.
That is often where the help ended and, unfortunately, it was the prevailing approach to employment services recognized by federal funders.
“This ‘train and pray’ method does not work,” says Vesy.
Deaconess, the private foundation she leads, is focused on helping Cuyahoga County’s most disadvantaged residents prepare for, get and keep jobs.
WorkAdvance studied traditional workforce preparation services versus the more robust “career pathways model” — which is also followed by College Now. All the participants were unemployed or in low-paying jobs.
According to the report, the career pathways model was a clear winner.
“Employers can be connected to the talent they need, while individuals can enjoy better earnings and increased potential for career advancement,” the report concluded. This is exactly what College Now is doing.
“College Now has identified a gap and a need,” says Vesy. “College and Career access advising is what (its counselors) do well. People need help negotiating the maze of services.”
Student loan debt, a $1.3 trillion problem nationally, is another major barrier for many trying to finance continuing education. The average student loan debt in Ohio is $30,239, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.
Student loan debt counseling is also a part of College Now’s Adult Learner Services. Advisors provide one-on-one direction to individuals and through localemployers. One employer they work with is Cuyahoga County.
“Implementing the College Now Student Loan Rescue Program at the county was very important to us because we know that lifting the financial burden of a college loan can really help our employees,” said Sharon Sobol Jordan, chief of staff for Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish. “It is crucial to support our employees, whom we consider to be our greatest asset, so that they can focus on the good work that they do.”
Their results have been encouraging. Since the program began in May 2016, more than 300 county employees have taken advantage of the free, one-on-one loan counseling sessions. Among these employees, the average monthly payment has decreased from $477 to $170 — an average monthly savings of $306.
Darlene Walker, Cuyahoga Job and Family Services’ investigations assistant, worked with Taryn Rechenbach, an adviser from College Now.
“I’m really happy I was able to work with College Now and take advantage of this program,” says Walker. “As a result, I was able to cut down my monthly student loan payment substantially and put those saved dollars to good use.”