Published on 2012/06/06

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.

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Readers Comments

WA Anderson 2012/06/06 at 9:50 am

There’s real truth to this piece; we need to go beyond the simple provision of student services to ensure adults persist in their degree pursuits. We need to make sure we recognize their prior and experiential learning. We need to make sure the classes fit their needs, both content-wise and in terms of scheduling.

We also need to make sure the barriers to student mobility are torn down. I think this will require some kind of government action, because otherwise universities can continue to collude with one another and with their respective accrediting bodies to ensure that all the profits from particular students stay in-house.

Joe Rounceville 2012/06/07 at 1:22 pm

Hello Walter, you may not remember me, you interviewed and hired me as an adjunct lecturer at Simpson College a few years ago. I would like to add my experience as a nontraditional student to this discussion.

I completed my B.A. as a traditional student in 1994, but chose to pursue a Masters around 2002, and completed in 2005. My MS was from Argosys/University of Phoenix, and was through the online program. I can attest that it is very true that UoP takes little interest in online students regarding making sure they achieve their graduation goal. You are completely on your own in that model, and that probably accounts for low graduation rates.

That said, it occurs to me that the overhead of helping students achieve their graduation goals should not blindly be applied to all students via armies of advisors and support mechanisms. Students like me, who were highly motivated, are taken advantage of (higher tuition) by those who are unclear of their intent and ability to finish. Believe me, I know quite well how difficult it is to complete a degree while working full time and raising a family, but I wonder if part of the solution exists in somehow more formally helping prospective students understand what they’re getting into. How many students simply don’t grasp what they’re taking on before they start? I have a number of colleages who have said things to that effect after choosing to leave their BA or MBA programs — that they had no idea what they were getting into.

I hope that adds a little bit of a different perspective on the discussion.

David Shawn Smith 2012/06/12 at 10:29 am

As an adult who returned back to school and completed my degree last May, it is not easy for traditional or non-traditional students to obtain degrees. We as adults do bring some new and different to the classroom.

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