Remember the Working Adult College Student

According to the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the fall 2019 college enrollment included 12.5 million students under age 25 and 7.4 million students 25 and older. If historical patterns hold about one-third of those enrollees will not earn a degree in eight years. According to the National Student Clearinghouse’s (NSC) 2019 report, Some College, No Degree, there are 36 million Americans in the NSC database who attended college and left before earning a degree.  Reasons vary but for most life just got in the way—money, family, a job opportunity–and completing college became a lower priority. American post-secondary policy must embrace a dual goal—increasing access for ALL high school students to college and removing the barriers for those students who need to return to complete their degree.   

Declining birthrates added to the already college enrollment decline—down from 21 million in 2010— should provide a survival incentive for colleges to think about the needs of these students in their marketing.  Policy makers at the state and federal level should be assessing both this data and the call from employers that they just can’t find the talent they need to stay globally competitive.  

There are many colleges and states already working in this area.  Martha Kanter’s work with College Promise documents local efforts to create a system of free community college with some programs, like Tennessee Promise, making that commitment for all ages.  Removing two years of debt may very well attack that drop-out number and hopefully more states will learn from Tennessee about the ROI on investing in working adults. Other states are pairing scholarships and counseling, adding on-line courses and marketing directly to students who are ‘near completers’ to get them back to college.

One of the oldest efforts, began in 2005 is Graduate Philadelphia.  The program provides free services at their office and through the American Job Centers in the city.  They have enlisted two- and four-year colleges, unions, non-profits and philanthropy to join and so far, have seen 2,500 adults go back to college and over 1,000 earn their degree.

What must happen?

Remove the paper barrier.  Admissions and financial aid must be as simple as possible.  Some colleges have made it simple to reapply regardless of how long the time out has been. And many have waived the application fee for returning students.

Speak their language.  Adult students have been in the work world and want to have relevant courses that they see as applicable to their work, and as steppingstones to their aspirational career.  They are ready to go now and don’t want to wait until ‘next semester’. Talking to them about employers, work-based learning and embedded credentials is the way to pique their interest and convince them that completing the degree will have a return on their investment.

Respect their accomplishments.  They may not have been at the top of the GPA list, but they have resilience and grit and real experience that will make them a stronger student than they were.  Transfer their earned credits, talk to them bluntly about the most efficient way to a major and about what majors have value in the workplace. Provide ways for them to demonstrate their ability through Prior Learning Assessments and treat them like the accomplished adults they are.

Schedules matter. At too many institutions the support services work around the schedules of full-time students who spend their days on campus.   Tutoring, study groups, counseling, professors’ office hours, and career fairs are often held while working students are on the job.  Technology and a little forward thinking can provide more equal access.

Rethink fees.  Public higher ed has been underfunded for decades and has looked to fees to provide a less negative public image rather than raising tuition.  For part-time working students’ colleges should examine their fee structure. If I am only on campus one night a week, should I pay the same fees as someone who is on campus every day?

Make adult students a priority.  Celebrate their accomplishments; have networking events with other working students; arrange events geared to their interests and engage them as an important part of the campus community.

And on the federal level there is a need to eliminate the lifelong ban on Title IV participation if you were unsuccessful during your initial college experience.  SAP—Satisfactory Academic Progress—is an overly punitive measure that will block lifelong learning opportunities for too many adults. Allowing all adult learning to participate in Title IV could be the message colleges need to get from the Federal Government on the importance of these learners.  I deeply regret that I did not see the importance of this when I was a staff person on the Hill.