Published on 2012/11/06

Compete to Complete: How States Can Improve Higher Education for Adults

States have historically set their focus on supporting traditional-age students, but as demographics evolve the time has come for them to put more investment and energy into improving higher education for adults.

The following interview is with Travis Reindl, the Program Director of the Education Division at the National Governors Association for Best Practices. In 2011, Reindl co-wrote “Compete to Complete: Improving Postsecondary Attainment Among Adults.” In the paper, the NGA suggested four strategies states could adopt to improve higher education for adults: the provision of flexible and integrated learning environments, increased availability of comprehensive support services, utilization of cross-institutional data to track performance, and the creation of financing structures to incentivize improved performance. In this interview, Reindl discusses the thinking behind the paper and shares his thoughts on how some of these strategies could be implemented.

1. Why is the National Governor’s Association focused on adult student completion in higher education?

It’s really just down to the fact that in more than half of our states, the 18-24 year old population is either not going to grow or is going to get smaller in the coming years. If states are going to meet their completion and attainment goals and meet workforce needs, they’re absolutely going to have to reach into that adult population that either attended post-secondary education and never finished a credential, or who never attended at all.

2. Do you think states are underperforming when it comes to meeting the needs of adult learners?

I don’t think I would call it underperforming as much as it is catching up. For so many years, the focus was on, number one, providing access and focusing a little bit less on the completion side of things. And number two, the focus has historically been on 18-24 year olds.

We are waking up to see that from a meeting workforce needs standpoint, we absolutely can’t get there unless we serve adult students. I think it’s a catching up more so than it is any sort of an underperformance.

3. Let’s shift gears and talk about the specific strategies suggested by the NGA. Why is the provision of flexible and integrated learning environments important for adults?

Research has shown that adult students have some factors that really do make it different in whether or not they’re going to finish a certificate or degree. Many of them have children, they’re working full-time or at least part-time, and the research has been pretty clear that the more of those life factors you have, the greater risk there is that a student won’t finish a certificate or a degree program.

By bringing together the services that really help these students, whether it’s childcare or whether it’s academic advising or financial aid, bringing them together in one place helps those people cover more of their bases simultaneously and, therefore, gives them a leg-up and a better change of finishing that certificate or degree.

4. When you suggest comprehensive support services, what types of services are you envisioning?

I think it ranges all the way from having on-site childcare, bringing in the financial aid advising and counseling to bringing in academic support, helping with courses and programs, especially those that might be standing as an obstacle to the next step along the way. I think, again, it’s addressing not just the student as student, but it’s also helping them to address student as worker, student as parent.

5. When we talk about adult student success, there are some major differences between the ways different states and institutions measure. What metrics do you think institutions and states should be using to define “success” when it comes to adult learners?

I think that when it comes to adult students, it’s pretty clear that we need to be looking at progress, not just access and not just success. One of the things that we’ve observed in working with states is that the idea of tracking momentum, when students reach and pass those critical milestones of 12 credits or 24 credits or 72 credits, really helps to show whether or not the odds are in their favor toward completing a certificate or degree.

I think that while there are a number of different ways that they can and are measuring the participation and the success of adults, I think one area that really deserves focus is really that momentum piece of this. What we’ve seen out of the research is the more that students get behind them in terms of completed credits, the better chance that these students will make it to the finish line.

6. Finally, the NGA suggests the development of financing structures that incentivize improved performance. What types of measures would be put into place? Are we talking about tuition refunds based on academic performance, or something else entirely?

I think there are a number of different directions we can take in terms of using our finance policies to incentivize better serving adult students. One possibility is in looking at—on the student financial aid side—performance-based scholarships where students receive funds as they cross certain milestones along the way to certificate or degree. If they finish a certain number of credit hours or they finish a term and meet a minimum academic standard. I think that there are ways that institutions, in how they’re funded, can be incentivized to better serve the adult student population. We see a number of states implementing or exploring performance funding policies right now and in some states the conversation has been about, “Should we provide explicit incentives for increasing the number or the percentage of adult students that are enrolled in our institutions, and provide incentives and financial reward for the number of adult students that are completing these certificate and degree programs?”

I think that whether we’re talking about funding as it relates to students or funding as it relates to institutions, there is interest in states in how we provide the sorts of incentives and rewards so that we have more adult students completing certificates and degrees.

7. Do you have anything to add about strategies states could implement to improve higher education for adults?

I think it’s important to stress that states need to look all the way across the board, whether it’s in how they fund scholarships or how they fund institutions, how they structure programs, how they measure in their accountability systems to make sure that the adult student is part of that picture. When you’re in a situation where we really are going to be relying on these students to meet workforce needs and meet completion goals, they can’t be invisible in our policies.

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Readers Comments

Yvonne Laperriere 2012/11/06 at 11:10 am

Incentivizing degree milestones is one of the most creative approaches I have heard to the funding challenge currently at play in higher education. It really focuses funding on the students who are more likely than not going to finish their degree, not to mention motivating more learners to become students who are going to finish their degree. In general, scholarships for adult learners are lacking, and this is in my opinion a great way of doing that.

Belinda Chang 2012/11/06 at 4:25 pm

Indiana University recently announced a new funding initiative that incentivizes in the way that is proposed here. If a student finishes their degree in four years in good academic standing, they will be given funds to offset any tuition hikes that happened in their last two years of school (

This is more addressing the problem of student debt in general than of adult learning, but it is one of the first initiatives I’ve seen of its kind, and would love to see more incentivized funding like it.

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