Key Education Transitions

Overcoming Obstacles to Improving College Completion Rates for Adult Learners

Carol D'Amico, USA FundsBy Carol D’Amico, Executive Vice President, National Engagement and Philanthropy, USA Funds

Nationwide, 36.2 million working-age Americans have some college but no degree. Helping workers complete a postsecondary credential – be it a certificate, an associate degree, or a bachelor’s degree – is a national priority.  In today’s Knowledge Economy, the U.S. needs millions more workers with advanced skillsets.  More important, Americans who stopped out of college face limited employment and income prospects. Those who left school with hefty student loan balances are fretting through financially precarious lives.

A good way to identify solutions is to examine what schools, states, and federal policymakers are doing right now to retain and graduate more than 8.2 million adult learners who are currently enrolled in college. They have an incentive to hurry. The 25-and-older student population is projected to grow by 25 percent – to 10.3 million students – between 2014 and 2023, according the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education. During the same period, the number of 18-to-24-year-olds enrolled in college either full-time or part-time is expected to increase by only 6 percent.

Projected College Enrollment by Age Group

Making college more affordable for adult learners is a must, but this is a tall order.  Older students face a continuing Hobson’s choice. Pressing financial and family responsibilities often force these students to drop out of school because they simply don’t have the option to quit work.

The Education Commission of the States is cataloguing state financial aid programs, on a state-by-state basis, to identify policy changes that would help older students qualify for their fair share of state grant aid.  Eligibility rules for federal grants and student loans ignore a student’s age; yet some state program rules essentially limit state grants to the under-25 population.  Nontraditional students have a tendency not to follow the traditional fall enrollment patterns of their younger classmates, and thus tend to miss the financial aid application deadlines for state grant programs, which typically fall in the first six months of the calendar year. For example, a worker laid off in October may decide to return to school in December and enroll in January, halfway through the academic year and long past the state’s early spring deadline for submitting the FAFSA to qualify for a state grant.

Across the U.S., postsecondary institutions are creating lower-cost pathways to a college degree, especially for adult learners.  For example:

  • The University of Southern New Hampshire is pioneering a competency-based education model that is designed to meet both skills development and logistical needs of today’s working adults.
  • Arizona State University is partnering with Starbucks to enable both full- and part-time employees to complete postsecondary degrees via an online program, with the Seattle-based coffeehouse chain picking up their baristas’ tuition tab.
  • Jefferson Community and Technical College and the University of Louisville joined forces to help create Metropolitan College, which offers eligible Kentucky workers access to a tuition-free college education. Employees from UPS and Humana have participated in the program.
  • Western Governors University, an online university, charges a low, flat rate for annual tuition, regardless of the number of classes completed and course credits earned. More than 58,000 students residing in all 50 states and overseas U.S. military installations are currently enrolled in WGU, with more than 10,000 graduating annually. The average student age is 37.

In June, USA Funds awarded a $2 million grant to establish WGU Nevada, which will tailor degree programs to meet the needs of Nevadans. Similar state-based WGU programs are already available in Indiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas and Washington.

Postsecondary institutions can help reduce the time to completion by awarding credit when credit is due.  Late last year, 25 colleges located throughout the U.S. joined forces to develop a 21st Century model for accepting transfer credits. The schools participating in the pilot project will allow students to earn credit toward their degrees by successfully completing coursework offered by a selected group of no-cost or low-cost online classes.

Policymakers are encouraging schools to expand their use of prior learning assessment to award credit to students who can demonstrate their mastery of a course subject by presenting a portfolio of work or by passing a rigorous exam.  A number of schools are adopting prior learning assessments to help returning veterans earn their degrees at a faster pace and at a lower cost.

Schools seeking to improve the graduation rate for their adult learners should especially take note of prior learning assessment programs. A study by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning found that students who earn credit for their work and life experiences are 2-1/2 times more likely to complete their associate or bachelor’s degree.

College completion data compiled by the National Student Clearinghouse tell us that older students have much lower graduation rates than those who start fresh out of high school. The six-year completion rate for students who are 20 or younger when they enroll is 59 percent. The six-year completion rate for those who are 25 or older when they first enroll is only 42 percent. That’s one more reason why the higher education community is paying close attention to the ongoing initiatives aimed at improving education outcomes for adult learners.

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