Adults Completing Degrees—How Tackling A Persistent Problem Creates New Value

The urgency to integrate adult learners into national and regional economic growth plans is—finally—tangible. Colleges and universities are reporting lower enrollments and are looking to adult learners to fill seats. Employers are looking for candidates with postsecondary credentials and national funders are looking for solutions to the persistent Some College No Degree problem. These adults themselves are looking for ways to make a “comeback” to postsecondary education to upgrade their knowledge and skills in order to be more competitive in the job market. Lumina Foundation estimates that in the last 20 years, more than 31 million students started school but did not make it to graduation. 3.8 million had earned two years or more of college credit, and are identified by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center as Potential Completers. This population, now in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s or older, is the enticing “low hanging fruit” everyone is reaching for. 

The Graduate! Network is a national network of state- and community-based initiatives geared to promote, demonstrate and capture the value of investing in Comebackers completing their postsecondary education. We coined the term “Comebacker” in 2005 to express the potential of non-completers to make a comeback and complete a degree, redefining this population as an asset rather than a deficit. 

Across the Network, these community partnerships are providing localized, specialized advising services to Comebackers from the moment they ask for assistance through completion of their degree. Employer and postsecondary partnerships are a central component of each initiative, with employers describing their needs and providing employment and postsecondary partners recruiting Comebackers and learning to adapt to their needs. We have real time feedback from the Comebackers, advisors, employers and postsecondary institutions. We also have longitudinal data on the pathways that actual Comebackers have successfully taken to graduation. 

According to the NSC report, of the 3.8 million Some College, No Degree students who re-enrolled nationwide, 25 percent graduated. Twenty-nine percent were still enrolled as of December 2018 for a combined success and progress rate of 54 percent among re-enrollees.

Overall, across 14 of the Graduate! Network communities who have been participating in our longitudinal study, graduation rates of our potential completers in a five-year window were slightly higher at 27 percent than the national average, and 66 percent of our potential completers–fully double the national average–stayed continuously enrolled after returning to college until graduation. They just needed more time, more preparation, and more support.

What sets the Graduate! supported Comebackers apart from others? By definition, returning adult students are not starting with a clean slate; for many, it is not just a matter of filling out an application and registering. More often than not, they have issues that have to be addressed before even applying, such as finding the right academic program, beefing up academic and technology skills, figuring out how to juggle their families and work responsibilities, and sorting out financial aid issues. These issues also include flat-out barriers to re-enrollment stemming from their original stop-out, most notably outstanding balances and defaulted student loan debt. In addition, adults served by Graduate! Initiatives are among the poorest of returning students. Fully 90 percent have household incomes lower than $56,000 a year and half of those have household incomes lower than $24,000 a year. Many have run out of Pell or state grant funds. While past institutions may be trying to re-recruit them, negative experiences often linger. They note, in their program intake forms, interviews and surveys, that they had given up on returning to college until they heard of the Graduate! program. 

Going back on their own is not realistic for many of them. They need information, guidance, and support to get them back into the right school and through to graduation. The Graduate! Network community initiatives are designed to provide all three. But it takes time and investment. Adults who graduated with help from a Graduate!-trained advisor, spent close to 8 months on average preparing for re-enrollment. 16 percent spent more than a year–perhaps as much due to twice-annual semester start dates as to the amount of preparation they needed. Furthermore, we found that the number of “high touch” contacts (in-person advising sessions, phone calls, and texts) during the pre-enrollment preparation phase was predictive of re-enrollment. The more high-touch contacts an advisor had with a “comebacker,” the more likely they were to re-enroll, with quantifiable effects starting at three sessions and a significant difference (four times the baseline of a control group who did not respond to advisor outreach) occurring at 14 or more sessions. Considering as well the persistence rate mentioned above, the effect of a professional, personal external support is valuable up front, and pays dividends through graduation. 

These findings strengthen our resolve as we grow the network and continue to invest in ongoing training for the community-based advisor/navigators as well as for college advisors and employer-based staff who are interested in supporting employees pursuing additional education. 

Support for these efforts has been generously provided by partner colleges, United Ways, several mayors, a past governor of the state of Tennessee, KY-AARP, and local foundations. We are particularly grateful for the support of the Walmart Foundation, Trellis Foundation, The Kresge Foundation and Lumina Foundation.