There’s no mistaking where Melissa Koenig works.  

Koenig, a recruitment specialist at Cuyahoga Community College’s Parma campus, always seems to be wearing something emblazoned with the college’s logo or mascot. It’s what makes people stop her at Marc’s grocery store to tell her about their educational path and how she ends up talking about job opportunities while in line to make a return at Kohl’s.  

This week, decked out in a polo with the college’s logo and a hat emblazoned with its triceratops mascot, she brought her best Tri-C pitch to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo for an adult students event hosted by College Now of Greater Cleveland. 

The college was assigned a table, one of more than two dozen, near the entrance to one of the zoo’s pavilions. A prime spot.   

Her first step was dressing up that table. That’s the first impression of the college prospective students – about 60 during a breezy Monday in July – will get that day, so it’s a big deal. 

Free teal sunglasses went on a bright teal tablecloth. A plastic placard with a sheet advertising how the college’s credit hour prices compare to some four-year peers goes in the corner. At $124.54 for county residents, the college says it’s cheaper than its competitors. 

Melissa Koenig, right, talks to prospective students. Credit: Maeve Hackman / College Now

Another handout lists free eight- to16-week courses in fields such as manufacturing and information technology, enticing options for adults who want to quickly earn new skills or change careers. There’s also a big stack of guides for new students: how to enroll, which financial forms to complete, where to submit transcripts electronically.  

It’s those documents she writes all over, Koenig said. Circles some actions to take. Highlights others. 

“It’s really important to give them tangible steps to break down the overwhelming nature that going back to college could be,” she said. 

The future of higher education

Colleges everywhere are competing for dwindling numbers of high school graduates. In Ohio, that number is forecasted to decline by 11% between the class of 2019 and the class of 2037

But adults who took some college classes but never earned a degree or credential are a growing population. More than 40.4 million people fall into that camp nationwide, including nearly 1.4 million Ohioians. 

It’s the latter group that’s lucrative for both colleges and employers. Employers need more skilled workers for open jobs. Here in Northeast Ohio, the greatest demand is in health care, manufacturing, and information technology.

And colleges are a natural fit to train those workers. First, they must show they’re responsive, relevant and worth the investment. 

But colleges and universities can’t appeal to adults with career and life experiences the same as those fresh out of high school. 

Understanding what adult learners need

Some institutions connect with adults better than others, said David Burke, College Now’s manager of adult programs and services. Those that offer short-term credential or certificate programs “have a better understanding of what adults’ needs are,” he said. 

Burke spearheaded the event at the zoo. It’s the first of its size the organization’s put on. Four local colleges attended in addition to Tri-C: Baldwin Wallace University, Cleveland State University, Kent State University, and Ursuline College. The University of Akron appeared in the fair’s program but wasn’t in attendance. Cuyahoga Valley Career Center was there, too.  

Burke invited those who he knew have adult services. Other places, like Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University, didn’t make the guest list. They don’t enroll many local adults, Burke said.

Higher education entities weren’t the only institutions in attendance. The event was intentionally billed as a resource fair. Representatives from places like workforce development organizations, Cuyahoga County Job and Family Services, hiring companies like Swagelok, and a non-profit connecting people with computers all made an appearance.   

It was a “two birds, one stone” type of situation, Burke said. Each of those organizations might help address some of the barriers that can frequently stop adults from taking classes.  

‘They’re more savvy’ 

Adults heading to campus tend to have two specific priorities, according to Janna Whitaker, associate director of admissions at Baldwin Wallace.  

“Getting there affordably and then [finishing] in a smart amount of time is paramount,” she said.

It’s more likely, Whitaker surmises, for an adult to come in knowing exactly what they want to major in, compared to the bulk of people coming to college straight from high school. 

“They’re more savvy,” Whitaker said. “They’ve been through it.” 

“It” can mean so many things – raising kids, being caregivers, working, health challenges. 

Potential and/or current older students are often juggling responsibilities in addition to their college coursework. An estimated one in five college students nationwide are parents. 

BW offers specific advising for adult students as well as military veterans. Most adults who head there are transferring from another school, and there are some scholarship opportunities for those in that group. There are no on-campus childcare options, though. Few local colleges currently offer those services.  

Different reasons for considering college

Travis Fain took his time at the fair. The Old Brooklyn resident, 46, is thinking about enrolling in a business program. Or a program with an apprenticeship component. Or maybe something in sports instead. A career where he can stay physically active while helping others at the same time is the dream. 

Travis Fain poses for a photo. Credit: Amy Morona / Signal Cleveland

Whatever the route, he thinks he’d be more comfortable taking courses online.

“I don’t want to feel like I’m in young kids’ way,” he said   

He didn’t ask how institutions may work to make adult students feel welcome on campus. He just knows he’d probably feel uncomfortable. Lots of places did say, though, that they have those online classes he wants. That’s a plus. 

Reginald Barker was also at the college fair. Before he came to the event, clad in five bright silicone bracelets with messages like “Mind over matter” and “I am Black history,” he promised himself he’d talk with every person at every table. 

The questions he posed were targeted: What are your retention efforts? Do you have any volunteer opportunities?  

One college piqued his interest when they mentioned potentially expunging Ds and Fs from transcripts for those returning to college. Another place — he wouldn’t share the institution’s name – sent a representative who didn’t seem especially clued in to adult students’ needs, he said. 

“I don’t know why or why not they chose to do it that way, but that was interesting to me,” he said.  

Barker, who lives in southeast Cleveland, doesn’t think he needs a college degree. He’s gone all of his 53 years without one. It wasn’t needed for the nearly 15 years he spent working for the U.S. Postal Service, he said, adding that health issues eventually stopped him from continuing there. 

But now he wants to earn an associate’s degree. It would help set a good example for the young people he coaches in basketball and football, he said. And it would be a gift to his parents. His dad didn’t graduate from high school. 

Ultimately, he said, it’d be for himself.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Signal Cleveland, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.