Why I Work So Hard for Returning Adult Students

It’s been almost nine months since Complete College America launched our newest Game Changer, A Better Deal for Returning Adults. In that time, I’ve had the opportunity to deliver the “Better Deal Stump Speech” dozens of times. In each presentation, I frame the issue by talking about workforce needs, postsecondary attainment goals and the imperative to attract and graduate many more adult students to make that math work. It’s clearly a public policy issue. And did I mention that in many states, demographic shifts show the high school pipeline shrinking, creating significant implications for enrollment?

Now, exit analytical Sarah. There is a much more fundamental reason I care so deeply about returning adult students and how colleges serve them. This work, to me, is about strengthening families. Yes, through better income and job stability, but it goes beyond that. To me, it’s about bringing families together around the shared value of education.

Parents get to be their kids’ heroes, at least for a short period of time. As we raise our children, they watch our actions and strive to picture themselves in our shoes. They emulate us whether they intend to or not, even picking up our common phrases, mannerisms, and tones of voice.

If you went to college directly from high school and graduated before starting a family, you can inform your children that you earned a postsecondary credential and encourage (or insist) that they do the same. But you typically won’t be able to communicate that message through your own actions, in real time. But adult students can — and do.

This recently clicked for me at my 44-year-old husband’s graduation ceremony last spring. I saw Marc walking across campus in his cap and gown, holding hands with our 8-year-old daughter who wore her fanciest dress for the occasion. I saw my 6-year-old son staring in awe at the sea of funny hats, understanding intuitively that something special was about to happen. I stood beside them in the audience during the processional. And when Marc came around the corner, absolutely beaming with pride, we – together – saw him as our hero.

My children got to witness this triumphant moment. But they also had three years’ worth of experiences – homework on weekends, tired eyes from late night studying – that will help them understand the hard work behind that accomplishment. They will approach their educational journey with an understanding of what it takes – and what’s at stake. This is a gift Marc gave our children that I, as a traditional-age student, couldn’t.

But in moments of panic along the way, I considered what would happen if his college didn’t serve him well. Our children might have observed that whenever one of them gets sick, dad’s grades suffer because his professors wouldn’t extend a deadline or waive a policy. Maybe they would have heard Marc complain about all the time he had to spend away from them to “learn” material he already knew. I wondered if he had gone part-time, could it seem to our kids like he had been in school literally their whole lives and still not graduated? How would this affect their view of college? Would it leave them questioning its value?

Or worse, what if he hadn’t ultimately been successful? The most terrifying scenario to me is that they would have ended up believing that if their dad – who they still think is the smartest man alive – couldn’t make it through, they wouldn’t even try.

Back to analytical Sarah and the fact that graduation rates for students 25 and older is 49%. That means that across the country adult students and their families are just as likely to suffer the disappointment of failure as they are to experience the joys of success. This represents so much more than a missed opportunity for those families. That 49% graduation rate is clawing at the fabric of our societal commitment to education because it affects parents and children alike. We are weaker as a country each and every time a father withdraws from college. Weaker with each and every pained expression on a mother’s face when she tells her children she’s giving up.  And colleges have to step up to do a better job because they now have the blueprint to do so.

This is the real reason I relentlessly advocate that colleges implement the three key structural reforms proven to dramatically improve adult student’s graduation prospects. When colleges give adults a workable full-time schedule, grant credit for what adults know, and provide a coach to help when life gets in the way, it’s not just a Better Deal for Returning Adults. It’s a Better Deal for Families, our Country, and Future Generations.

Sarah Ancel is a senior vice president at Complete College America.