By Frank Swanzy Essien, Jr., Ph.D., and Kelle Parsons

Adult learners of color lean on trusted family and friends to help them decide if returning to college fits their hectic lives, according to three studies that explored how Americans choose to finish—or not—a degree.

How and why adults decide to re-enroll in college or training programs is of great interest to higher education and training experts eager to grow and retain enrollment. At least 40 million Americans have some college but no degree. And for students of color, college attainment equity gaps stubbornly persist.

That’s why Lumina Foundation partnered with American Institutes for Research (AIR) on a series of research projects to find out how colleges can encourage adults to pursue degrees—especially Black, Latino, and Native American learners. The projects include AIR’s study on the influences behind enrollment decisions; a study by Willis A. Jones, Ph.D., Southern Methodist University, on adult learners’ social networks, and a study by Jenesis Ramirez, Ph.D., Florida International University, on students enrolled in FIU’s Urban Potential Laboratories (UP Labs). Many who completed that 14-week credential program opted to enroll in a four-year degree.

Here’s what we learned from these projects:

  1. College needs to “fit” adult learners’ busy lives.
    Re-enrolling is a complex decision. Adult learners juggling work and families often ask, “Can I make this work with the rest of my life?” If the answer is no, that’s a roadblock. Enrolling in just one course takes a major commitment of time, money, and confidence—and colleges often give confusing information that makes the decision harder. So, colleges need to relay information in a timely, trusted, and easily understood way.
  2. Adult learners look to their networks, or ecosystems, for information and support.
    AIR’s study found that adult learners rely on their ecosystems for information and support in roles described as “information brokers” and “mentors”—sometimes played by the same person. And because colleges only interact with learners at certain times, those mentors are hugely influential in decisions to enroll or not.
  3. Faculty and coaches also influence college decisions.
    Dr. Ramirez’s study found that learners enrolled in the short-term credential program appreciated faculty, coaches, and peers who offered new details and support, building confidence that classes could work with their lives. In that way, program faculty, staff, and peers become part of learners’ ecosystems.
  4. Information networks for adults of color and white adults differ on many levels.
    Dr. Jones’ study raised a key issue: On average, advice and information networks appear to differ between adults of color and white adults. Adults of color had fewer people giving them college advice, and most were family or friends—who were more likely to support re-enrolling. It’s unclear what impact these differences have on learners’ decisions; more research is needed to explore these nuances.

In the meantime, educators eager to support re-enrollment should ask:

  • Do our practices and programs ensure that learners can fit college into their busy lives? (This includes flexible classes, counselors, and support such as housing and child care).
  • Do our websites clearly address adult learners’ questions about making college work for them? Do we address the fears of those who may have been told they aren’t “college material?”
  • How are we helping adult learners’ mentors or communities get the information they need?
  • Do we make it easy to find answers and guidance before they even apply?

For this study, Swanzy partnered with a team led by Kelle Parsons, a senior American Institutes for Research researcher. Studies by Willis Jones, Ph.D., and Jenesis Ramirez, Ph.D., also are featured in this blog.

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