US universities see growing numbers of returning students

Too many institutions, however, don’t properly serve them, advocates warn

October 30, 2019
Dog returns boomerang

Nearly 1 million US students have earned a bachelor’s degree in the past five years after halting their initial studies, demonstrating that the country’s growing cohort of former students without a degree deserves more attention from universities, a leading industry study group has said.

The National Student Clearinghouse, in a follow-up to a 2014 report, found that the population of former college students lacking a qualification has grown in the five years from 29 million to 36 million.

They represent a population that universities should be competing to serve at a time of heavy pressure for greater efficiencies in higher education, said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the Clearinghouse’s Research Center.

“But they have been mostly invisible until now,” Dr Shapiro said.

Most of the 36 million former students attended a two-year community college, according to the report by the Clearinghouse, a 26-year-old non-profit provider of research and other services to universities.

The most promising, the Clearinghouse found from checking degree completion data among its 2014 cohort, are the 10 per cent of the former students who had spent at least two years in classes over the previous decade.

Their success also provides lessons for colleges, the Clearinghouse said, because 10 per cent of those delayed degree completers did so at online institutions – a rate double that of college graduates overall.

Such heavy reliance on online formats, the Clearinghouse said, suggests that traditional colleges still are not doing enough to address the barriers that adult students face. To succeed, they need better student support services and policies covering childcare, credit transfer, class scheduling and financial aid, among other things, it said.

Too many higher education institutions have rules and systems that are “built around traditional college students and are not adult learner-friendly”, the Clearinghouse said.

It also found that most of the returning students earned a two-year associate degree or a sub-baccalaureate certificate. By comparison, it said, most US students who complete college while attending for their first time earn bachelor’s degrees.

The 36 million figure is a stunning number that should grab the attention of US colleges fretting about declining population rates, said Courtney Brown, vice-president for strategic impact at the Lumina Foundation, which finances research affecting education policy.

It is evidence of a “broken” system of higher education, Dr Brown said. “This number is increasing dramatically; it’s not shrinking.”

A key problem, said Leanne Davis, an assistant director of applied research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, which also advocates for policy improvements, is the reluctance of former students to return to the same college they left. “Why would they come back to an institution that may have failed them in the first place?” she asked.

The state of Tennessee is a rare leader in tackling that problem, said Hadass Sheffer, president of The Graduate! Network, which helps adults finish college.

Its Tennessee Reconnect programme, Ms Sheffer told a Clearinghouse event, offers a single point of contact unaffiliated to a particular institution that curious former students can connect with to learn about options for completing their degrees.

“It’s really scary to put yourself back in a place where you feel you failed,” Ms Sheffer said. The Tennessee programme, she said, is “like having your big sister next to you”.

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