Re-engaging adult learners is key to a sustainable HE recovery

Winning back those who left college without a degree will be key in reversing the declines of the past year, say Kai Drekmeier and Amanda Winters


InsideTrack,National Governors Association
25 Oct 2021
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Tempting back adults who left college early without a degree could be key to higher education's recovery

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For the first time since the pandemic began, long-term unemployment in the US is falling. At the same time, millions of people remain without a job. With many of the jobs lost being unlikely to return, displaced workers are looking for ways to reskill and find a new foothold in a workforce still in recovery. And yet, few seem to be turning to higher education, with the National Student Clearinghouse finding that college student enrolment has dropped by 3.5 per cent since spring 2020. This stands in stark contrast to recessions of the past, which sparked enrolment surges, including the nearly 16 per cent increase during the Great Recession.

Colleges and universities must do more to pursue older students, and state policymakers have the tools to equip them for success. Fortunately, these stakeholders have a strong base on which to build these efforts: the 36 million Americans who have attended college but never earned a degree. With undergraduate enrolment this spring falling 5.9 per cent from last year, re-enrolling adult learners will be key in reversing the declines of the past year and better securing higher education’s viability in the long term.

In recent years, some states, institutions and organisations have launched programmes aimed at engaging, supporting and re-enrolling some of the country’s lost learners. Since 2018, the State University of New York’s “Re-Enroll to Complete Program” has re-enrolled nearly 20,000 students across 53 campuses. Moreover, the City University of New York announced last month that it will forgive the balances of more than 50,000 students who were enrolled at any point during the pandemic – a move that will provide a meaningful boost to those who stopped out during the Covid-19 crisis.

Recently, the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) launched a new initiative designed to re-enrol students across nine member institutions. The UNCF will provide personalised success coaching to thousands of former students to help them re-enrol and develop a plan to successfully complete their degrees. These are promising programmes, but such efforts should really be a core piece of every college’s enrolment strategy. And this will require structural changes at our institutions.

In February 2021, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer announced the official launch of Michigan Reconnect – a financial aid programme specifically for adult learners. The programme, which earned bipartisan support, covers tuition costs for learners who are older than 25, have not completed a postsecondary degree and are pursuing an associate’s degree or credential.

We must streamline the processes for re-entering higher education − and that starts with better tailoring support to meet the needs of returning adult learners. From waiving administrative fees to crafting universal transcripts, institutions and state leaders must work together to dramatically lower the many barriers to re-enrolment.

Once they are back on campus, returning students will greatly benefit from flexibility, resources and guidance that all take into account their busy lives. Understanding why people leave college in the first place will be crucial to the success of re-enrolling students as well as preventing future stop-outs. We must identify what caused each student to stop out and what needs to change for them to be successful as they once again attempt to earn a degree.

For many of these students, it’s not always academic struggles that are primary drivers of their decision to drop out, but rather family and work responsibilities, financial hardship and the myriad other unexpected turns life can take. To address those challenges, institutions will have to offer more online courses and expand student services outside the usual working hours, as well as provide coaching around developing time management skills and re-prioritising academics. Institutions must work to address and reduce the costs associated with returning to school, not only those most apparent in the bursar’s office. This includes childcare, housing, food and technology access.

Faculty, staff and campus leadership will also need resources and training to learn how best to re-engage and support these adult learners. There are organisations that can help. The Institute for Higher Education Policy’s Degrees When Due programme, for example, provides interactive online tools and live coaching to campuses looking to increase degree attainment among those with some college but no degree.

Institutional and state leaders must be prepared to create clearer pathways between credentials and careers. Governors have an important role to play here, bringing together stakeholders and systems from across the state to better connect workforce and training programmes to degrees. Addressing affordability concerns is also key, and governors should work to loosen red tape and remove barriers around how institutions can address the debt of their students.

Higher education leaders have long recognised the importance of re-enrolling the millions who leave college without earning a degree. The pandemic has, however, created a renewed sense of urgency around the task. To support a more equitable and inclusive recovery − for students and our broader economy − we must first get our students back on track to earning a credential.

Kai Drekmeier is founder and chief developing officer at higher education non-profit InsideTrack. Amanda Winters is programme director of post-secondary education at the National Governors Association (the association for elected state governors in the US).


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