By Frank Swanzy Essien, Jr. and Patricia Steele

A new report shows that most adults who return to college can persevere and graduate if they have enough time and financial support. Nearly three-quarters of the returning adults surveyed earned a postsecondary credential, and most who hadn’t still planned to do so.

This finding, on its own, is incredibly surprising considering the negative data generally presented about adult students’ completion and retention rates. The reality is that the majority of those who depart college are successful.

There’s more good news: the returning students earned degrees or credentials at the levels they desired or higher, and many earned multiple credentials. Of those who completed their studies by 2021, most earned at least a bachelor’s (59 percent) or associate (31 percent) degree. About 11 percent earned certificates, certifications, or licenses.

The report by Higher Ed Insight (HEI), in partnership with Lumina Foundation, arrives at a crucial time. Today, more than 36 million adults have some college education but no credential—and are no longer enrolled, according to the “Some College, No Degree” study by the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC).

These adults often juggle college with demanding jobs or child or family care obligations. Given the limits of financial aid available to older students, adults are often concerned about taking on student debt, especially if they have children nearing college. There might be the added challenge of access to a computer, Wi-Fi, and transportation for some adult students. Language can also be a barrier.

To learn more about what these students need, we surveyed about 1,400 adults from the NSC study who had stopped out of school and then returned from 2013 to late 2018. Our goal was to find new ways to support widescale policy and practice changes to help these learners. The survey shows these factors are crucial:

  • Financial support. Most adults who re-enrolled said they had received some kind of financial support, but they still faced significant costs. About 23 percent said they received tuition help from employers.
  • Admissions support. Students said it’s very helpful to have assistance from admissions staff, acceptance of transfer credits, clear details about degree programs, and a rolling admissions process.
  • Personal support. Students who succeeded said they had support from family, friends, employers, and others. Many were motivated by personal goals to finish school and prepare for better jobs.
  • Meeting cultural needs. A one-size-fits-all approach does not work. While Black, Hispanic and Latino, and Native American learners face similar barriers, their needs are vastly different and intensely personal to their life experiences. As attainment equity gaps grow, meeting those needs is crucial.
  • Degree maps and flexible classes. Adult returners stayed on track with the help of degree pathways and maps, and they liked the flexibility of online or hybrid courses along with convenient class times. As one student said, “being able to accelerate or slow down as life changes demanded” was critical.

Next steps

The report also offers ways for educators, employers, and policymakers to help returning students overcome barriers.

It’s time to rethink how we look at student departure within higher education. It’s not necessarily failure or dropout, but a time of “enrollment dormancy” (as Hadass Sheffer, formerly of the Graduate Network, refers to it). How can we structure the experience of dormancy as a transition of ease, where a student can pick up their education where they left off and make quick progress toward a credential of value? How can we continue to drive transparency and simplicity into the process of credit transfer and reverse transfer to make it easier for students to utilize the credits they once received? How might we provide the support, coaching, and advising for adult students to make academic success inevitable?

And for employers, how can we structure tuition reimbursement programs to better align with student success? Could employers offer assistance for tuition, fees, and books before they have to pay those expenses?

Both federal and state policymakers can also support the success of returning adult students by improving federal student aid eligibility for less-than-half-time students. State policymakers can do even more to help adult students, many of whom are currently excluding adults from state financial aid programs as currently designed.

It is time to eliminate age requirements in need-based state aid programs, or to increase the length of time of participation, allowing state aid to be used for part-time enrollment? How might financial aid be reimagined to support adult success.

With this new data in hand—and a little extra support from all of us—we can help millions of Americans achieve their dreams to finish school, earn valuable credentials, and build better lives.

Dr. Patricia Steele is principal and founder of Higher Ed Insight, a certified woman-owned small business that helps student success leaders determine how they are making a difference in students’ lives. Dr. Steele and her team offer services in evaluation, strategic learning, and organizational planning. The Higher Ed Insight team is committed to advancing opportunity for marginalized groups in higher education.]


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