Published on 2013/04/29
Easing Re-Entry for Adult Learners
Adult students face a number of challenges when they decide to re-enroll in a higher education institution to earn a degree. Their college or university should help to alleviate their issues, not add to them.

Re-entry to college is especially difficult for adult learners, who may have moved on in their lives but who wish now to finish what they started years ago. Family and career responsibilities tend to make it difficult for the would-be adult learner to re-enter college. And, as time goes by, curricula change, making it especially difficult to re-enter the specific college and major the learner left.

Sometimes the problem is that the desired curriculum has not changed: that nasty, required course — be it statistics or research or a senior seminar — which may have caused the student to leave college in the first place has not become any easier or more accessible in the intervening years. Regarding accessibility, location changes may make the fulfillment of a college’s residency requirement an insurmountable obstacle.

As if that weren’t enough, leaving college the first time without the degree caused loans to become due, making the additional cost of tuition payments and books now needed for re-entry and degree completion almost out of reach for the would-be adult learner.

The cruel irony is the baccalaureate is the very thing that might have made it easier to pay off academic loans.

Here, in New Jersey, we have a grant program provided by the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education called the Disengaged Adults Returning to College (DARC) Grant, an inapposite acronym for a program that brings adult learners out of the darkness and into the light. Earlier this year, the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey received funding from the DARC Grant. Locally, we changed the acronym to REAL — Re-Enrolling Adult Learners. The program identifies qualified students and seeks to diminish or eliminate financial and academic barriers that could prevent them from graduating. Qualified students are those who are 20 years old and over who have been out of school between one and 10 years, have a GPA of 2.0 or greater and have at least 64 credits from any accredited institution in the State of New Jersey.

So far, we’ve been able to provide support (whether financial or advising) to well over 70 re-entering adult learners who have come forward. We have been able to repay college fees and outstanding debts to the College (the grant program forbids us from covering tuition) for about 15 of those students. We were also able to supply instructional materials, especially virtual books. Because it is often the case that prospective adult learners do not have ready access to computers, we have purchased iPads in bulk and are lending them to the neediest adult learners, with their books for the term pre-installed. Such a program is especially critical as colleges across the nation are discovering — to their dismay — that students are choosing not to buy or rent textbooks and are “taking their chances” in increasing numbers. It is my hope we can continue this program even after the grant runs out.

This grant has led to or inspired three longer-lasting changes at Stockton, affecting three of the most challenging academic obstacles encountered by re-entering adult learners. First, we have created a cadre of broadly configured degree programs that make it easy for the adult learner to build on existing coursework to finish a baccalaureate degree. Second, the grant has supported about two dozen faculty members to develop online courses or online versions of existing courses, particularly ones that are “gatekeeper” courses that may prove to be difficult for the re-entering adult learner to access otherwise. Third, a committee of administrators and faculty members has been seeking to modify Stockton’s residency requirement (which requires students to earn the last 32 credits in residence).  Meanwhile, modifications to the existing policy have been sought for adult learners on a case-by-case basis.

Prospective re-entering adult learners represent a population deserving of our attention for so many reasons, not the least of which is that we might make them a modicum better able to get out from under student loan debt if they are able to graduate. At Stockton, we have seen that making the effort to reach out to such students is its own reward: they are so grateful to have been found.

Note: The contents of this article were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education (ED). This article does not necessarily represent the policy of the ED, and no assumption should be made of an endorsement by the Federal Government.

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Readers Comments

Ryan Loche 2013/04/29 at 10:23 am

I love the concept of getting adults to return to the college to complete their degrees. While I think there’s a level at which these students shouldn’t need the ‘piece of paper’, after all they obviously have the knowledge from the classes they took and, for the most part, have probably been able to find good jobs, it’s great that they are being presented a low-cost pathway to a new career (especially for those who could not complete their degree due to factors outside their control).

Re-enrolling these students will be a big hurdle we must jump to get to our completion target

Ursula V.F. 2013/04/29 at 11:17 am

It’s exciting to get an insider’s look at how these grants are distributed once they reach the institution. I have one question related to the use of these funds for moving programming online, though:

Are professors creating these online programs themselves, or are they paired with online instructional designers?

Yvonne Laperriere 2013/04/29 at 4:59 pm

It is necessary for Stockton to quickly establish a policy regarding the residency requirement for degree completion. Hagen writes that the college currently makes modifications to the requirement on a case-by-case basis. The risk here is that students with similar circumstances will, for whatever reason, be treated differently because of the lack of clear direction on how to implement modifications. When that happens, the institution opens itself up to criticism and, potentially, reputational challenges.

Rhonda White 2013/04/30 at 11:42 am

The purpose of programs such as DARC, which provides seed funding, is to kickstart changes within a recipient university/college. Institutions are encouraged to treat participation in these programs as an opportunity to complete a long-term planning exercise. From what Hagen describes, Stockton seems to have done exactly what DARC was intended for. They knew the funding wouldn’t last, but they’ve made the most of it and also used the opportunity to start a discussion on improving re-entry for adult students. Congratulations!

Stephen Gotti 2013/04/30 at 3:51 pm

I find it interesting that DARC/REAL is targeted specifically at non-tuition related fees. I don’t think we’re wrong to consider tuition a major barrier to adult student re-entry, but we err when we consider only tuition as a barrier. Perhaps the potential student has an outstanding debt and DARC/REAL funding is needed to bring the person back in good standing with the institution. Or, perhaps the newly-enrolled adult learner who has budgeted for tuition has forgotten to account for textbook and ancillary fees, which DARC/REAL could assist with. There are many ways smaller fees can become barriers for adult students, and DARC/REAL is an important program to remove some of those barriers.

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