The recent article in the BDN featuring Lerry Holloman, the city bus driver who worked while completing his bachelor’s degree and now master’s degree, illustrated a unique opportunity for Maine’s future growth: nontraditional students and working adults taking the next critical step in their education.

Holloman said it best in the article: “Education is the key to everything.”

The article brought into focus the idea of education for people who don’t fit the traditional mold. They are working full time or raising a family. Maybe they started college and left because it didn’t feel right or they couldn’t afford it. Maybe they’ve been displaced from a job and now are looking to build a career on a different path.

Maine’s employers, decision makers and educators will do well to focus on creating opportunities for these nontraditional students. As student populations decline in Maine, there are fewer traditional students coming into the college pipeline. The adult population in Maine has lower degree attainment than New England, and, not surprisingly, lower incomes. We are the oldest state in the nation and population growth is all but stagnant.

So what is our unique opportunity? Adults in Maine, working or not, who take the next step to gain new skills and knowledge.

According to the 2010 Census, there are as many as 218,000 people in Maine who started college and didn’t complete a degree. That’s a whopping 17 percent of the population. If just 10 percent of these people decided to go back to school online or at night, or complete a certificate program, or just complete a training program — that’s 21,000 people in the Maine economy who are more highly qualified than they were before.

We know why many people don’t take the next step: work schedules and family obligations, the cost of education, it’s hard to find information you need (about class schedules, costs, program options) and there is a general lack of encouragement and basic supports such as transportation and child care.

These are barriers facing individuals considering taking the next step, but there are virtually no good reasons for employers, decision makers and educators not to prioritize these potential students and knock down the barriers.

Research shows that employers who invest in their employees’ education see increased retention rates and employee satisfaction, and that adds up to employee loyalty. That’s in addition to gaining more highly qualified employees who can do more than before and do it better.

By focusing on nontraditional students, educational institutions can increase enrollment during a time when the traditional student population is declining. Institutions can serve these students more efficiently: These are individuals, after all, who typically don’t need a dorm room or a meal plan and often take classes online.

And for policymakers concerned about growing the Maine economy, encouraging nontraditional students to take the next step and helping to remove the barriers they face is a no-brainer. More skills and knowledge in the Maine work force means more productive workers for employers and an attractive asset for businesses who might consider locating here.

We encourage employers to support education and career development for their employees. There are multiple strategies that won’t stretch the budget, such as providing flex time, distributing information about education and training opportunities in the workplace, talking about educational or development goals in annual reviews, or simply celebrating an educational milestone at a company gathering.

Educators must do everything they can to remove barriers posed by cost and schedule, provide clear and concise information to potential students, and have a proactive support system in place to help them navigate challenges. We encourage the educational partners in Maine to develop and market accelerated programs designed just for this student population.

Maine must develop greater capacity for prior learning assessments and market them to students so they know they may get college credit for things they’ve already learned in the workplace.

And for our decision makers: Make it a priority to capitalize on this opportunity. Maine’s nontraditional students need more support and encouragement and they need infrastructure in place to help them jump over barriers.

We must be aggressive to take advantage of this opportunity. Let’s work together to help Maine’s working adults become nontraditional no more.

Maggie Drummond directs the Maine Employers’ Initiative, a program of the Maine Development Foundation. Steve Pound is associate director of work force development at the Cianbro Institute, Cianbro Corp. in Pittsfield.