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Why adults quit college and how to bring them back

From our freshman through senior years of college, my roommate worked tirelessly at Applebee’s Bar and Grill so she could afford to attend school. It’s not easy to balance work and school, but she figured it out.

Many are not as fortunate. The National Student Clearinghouse says 36 million Americans started post-high school education or training, but never finished and are no longer enrolled. Most people who “stop out” of school want to keep learning, but they need financial help, advice, flexible schedules, and other support to get back on track and to balance work and studies.

These are the insights from a new Strada-Gallup Consumer Survey supported by Lumina Foundation and the Strada Education Network as part of a larger series of reports on adults without degrees. The report features interviews with more than 40,000 adults, ages 25 to 64, about why they left school and what it would take for them to start up again.

Here are some key results:

  • Nearly one-third of participants said financial pressures and difficulties balancing school, work and young families were the most common reasons for leaving school.
  • Those same people said they might re-enroll if those factors improved with reduced or free tuition, flexible schedules, and guaranteed job outcomes such as a better job or a raise.
  • More than half of the surveyed adults needed better guidance, rating their academic and career counselors as poor or fair. This was in stark contrast to those who earned a degree; they said their advisors were good or excellent.
  • About one in five respondents said they didn’t believe that more education would help them in their careers.
  • Many said if they do resume their studies, they’d likely take courses or training offered through an employer. As an example, healthcare workers prefer this option.

The last point presents a huge opportunity for us to meet adult learners where they are – in the workplace.

Batesville Tool and Die Inc. is a good example. As a part of its “Pay for Skills” program, the company has partnered with Indiana’s community college system, Ivy Tech, to create opportunities for employees to earn credentials and earn a raise. Similarly, Walmart Inc., which employs 1.3 million workers nationwide, subsidizes tuition, books, and fees for employees who want to earn their associate or bachelor’s degree. Employees, who pay just $1 a day to participate, get coached on everything from selecting courses to getting credit for prior work experience. If all goes as planned, employers, employees, and society will all benefit.

Programs like this perfectly reflect what the Strada-Gallup survey respondents told us. Adult learners who “stopped out” clearly need education to be more affordable; they need education and work to fit easily together in their lives, and they want to see meaningful career benefits from spending time and money to learn.

Those needs are profound and urgent. Now, it’s up to us to meet them as we work to transform higher education and help many of those 36 million learners get back on track to learn, earn and live better lives.