Visit Modern Campus

Supporting College Completion for Adult Students

Focusing on delivering academic quality geared toward the specific needs of non-traditional learners allows adult students to overcome the obstacles inherent to higher education so they can succeed in their lives and careers. Photo by The U.S. Army.

Life had derailed Margaret’s goal of a bachelor’s degree. She had re-started college in an evening program, only to be sidetracked again by work and family. Her advisor called her up after a year off from studies and encouraged her to resume classes. With his help, a boost from the Prior Learning Assessment program, a flexible accelerated schedule, convenient campuses and services and affordable tuition largely covered by her employer’s tuition remission program, she graduated in 2.5 years. Most importantly, she was proud of her accomplishments.

“This was no easy program,” she said.

After graduation from Simpson College in West Des Moines, Margaret was promoted to a position as Executive Assistant to the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Later, her career advanced further when she became a grant and foundation officer.

Margaret’s story exemplifies the challenges adult students face when returning to college to finish a degree. Even when the college does everything in its power to smooth roadblocks, many adult students will be overwhelmed by challenges of work, family, economics or health.

Far too many adult students fail to complete their degree.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) measured persistence for adult students and found that 67 percent of highly non-traditional students (work full-time, study part-time, financially independent, etc.) who intended to finish the bachelor’s degree either stopped-out or shifted the degree objective downward (NCES 97-578).

In spite of all the obstacles, many are successful.

At Lewis University, the graduation rate in our accelerated adult programs tracks with the published persistence rate of 58 percent for the university’s full-time first-time students. It is my belief that the persistence rate for full-time, first time students is a pretty good proxy for the quality of the entire undergraduate bachelor’s degree program.

By this standard, many in the for-profit sector are in deep trouble. The University of Phoenix reports a graduation rate of 18 percent at its flagship Phoenix, AZ, campus and 6 percent in the online campus. Kaplan’s online program reports 27 percent. DeVry’s Illinois campus reports a more respectable 33 percent. Since no one is required to report the actual persistence rate in the adult programs, how do we provide a transparent and fair measure? Might these numbers provide a proxy for quality in the adult program?

What does it take to help adult students persist?

We must focus on delivering academic quality, convenience in schedules and locations and services, flexibility so that adults can fit their studies into their lives, and affordable programs. PLA has an enormous impact and doubles the adult students’ chances of persisting.

Caring and effective advisors and well-designed outreach to stop-outs can have a large impact. Accelerated schedules help to convert the distant goal of completion to a proximate goal, sustaining motivation. Affordable tuition, transfer-friendly policies, and PLA have a large impact on cost and sustain momentum. Grant forms of aid (state or federal tuition grants, employer tuition remission) have a positive impact. Effective admission and orientation processes get the right students in the right class at the right time. Building a faculty culture that values the connected classroom enhances student satisfaction and the ability to apply the learning within their lives.

Author Perspective: