There has been discussion in the community over the past few months about whether public and private not-for-profit colleges in the region are adequately serving the needs of the Lowcountry community. This discussion easily fits into the ongoing national conversation about the changing educational landscape, a discussion often motivated by the rise of for-profit educational institutions and the general movement towards greater access to online learning opportunities.

The link that is often missing in these conversations is the changing needs of students, and the changing nature of the undergraduate student population.

Approximately 40 percent of the current undergraduate students in the United States are 24 years of age or older, i.e. “the adult learners.” These are students who primarily have prior college experience, either through earning an associate’s degree or because they started a degree at a four-year college and did not complete that degree.

These students often have 50 percent or more of the credit hours required to earn a bachelor’s degree and are looking for educational options that are compatible with their busy lives. At the same time, these students recognize the importance of completing their bachelors degrees to their career advancement and future earning potential.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, workers who hold a bachelor’s degree earn 1.77 times more than workers who only hold a high school diploma.

This gap is expected to grow as the economy makes a clear shift towards rewarding individuals with knowledge, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012 the unemployment rate among college graduates was less than half the unemployment rate among high school graduates.

In fact, having a college degree is crucial to surviving economic downturns. Census data show that South Carolina is within the bottom 25 percent of states for the percentage of native-born population that completes a college degree.

These data suggest that South Carolina is likely to be disadvantaged in a global economy increasingly centered on the knowledge revolution — unless there is sufficient in-migration from other states to fill the gaps. Thus increasing the number of college graduates in South Carolina is a critical challenge.

Schools like the College of Charleston have taken an active role in helping students complete their degrees. At the College, we have worked with local stakeholders — including employers, prospective students and local state supported institutions — to create an exciting new degree completion program that we believe will significantly enhance the educational options available to the local population.

The College’s new Bachelor of Professional Studies (BPS) program has the explicit mission of providing access to the College’s tradition of educational excellence to the local community in a non-traditional way. The BPS is a degree-completion program available to anyone who holds an associate’s degree or who has earned prior college credit.

Similar programs across the nation have had success in eliminating the barriers that prevent adult students from returning to complete their degree, and have proven to be an efficient means to increase education attainment levels in their states.

The reasons to complete a college degree are numerous, and now the way to achieve that goal is finally within everyone’s reach.

Godfrey Gibbison is the dean of the College of Charleston North Campus.