Easing Re-Entry for Adult LearnersPeter Hagen | Director of the Center for Academic Advising, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey
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.
Author Perspective: Administrator