To serve them well, colleges must regain the trust of adult students

A growing number of institutions are turning to success coaching to help students re-enroll, transition to being a student once again and stay on track to a degree.
Ruth Bauer White
Ruth Bauer White
Ruth Bauer White is the president of InsideTrack, a student success coaching nonprofit that has served over 3.1 million learners since 2001.

Adult learners are an increasingly attractive cohort of student prospects to recruit. However, on top of how little the American public today seems to trust higher education, skepticism among adults who have already stopped out has already been confirmed.

Adult learners are balancing a range of complex psychosocial challenges. Many are working full-time and raising children. To persuade these learners to return, colleges must demonstrate a commitment to eliminating the barriers they face.

This requires a shift in how institutions have traditionally viewed their work with returning learners. It’s not about students convincing colleges to give them another chance, but institutions trying to persuade students to provide higher education another chance.

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Touching base with adult learners

Institutions now recognize that successfully re-enrolling and serving adult learners hinges on winning back the trust lost during a student’s first brush with college. Acknowledging and addressing the financial concerns of returning learners is crucial to any attempts at bringing them back to finish their degree.

Research shows that adults’ primary reasons for quitting college are financial concerns and family or personal commitments. These challenges do not typically fade in the years after students have left. Most people who have stopped out are working adults earning $50,000 a year or less.

Many are still paying off the debt they accumulated during their first attempt to earn a degree. About 40% of student loan borrowers do not graduate, and 15 percent of the federal loan debt currently in repayment is held by borrowers without a degree. That’s 12 million people struggling to pay off an education that left them with nothing to show for their investment. Borrowers who haven’t finished college are three times more likely to default on their loans than those who did earn a degree.

As a result, Detroit’s Wayne State University allows returning students to “learn away” some of the balance they owe from their previous time in college. The university’s Warrior Way Back program recently expanded the amount of debt that can be forgiven to $4,000. For each semester that former Wayne State students complete upon their return, their balance is reduced by one-fourth. Students who re-enroll through the Warrior Way Back program can also access various student support services designed specifically for adult learners.

Guiding adult learners with hands-on support

It’s not easy to figure out the byzantine re-enrollment process, nor is it easy to reacclimate to the college environment. It isn’t easy to balance academic obligations with job and family responsibilities that primarily take precedence over school work. Returning adult learners need resources, support and guidance that reflect their unique needs.

A growing number of institutions are turning to success coaching to help students re-enroll, transition to being a student once again and stay on track to a degree.

At Pitt Community College in North Carolina, staff go to great pains to fully understand the backgrounds and needs of each returning letter. Using an adult learner intake form, a staff member will create an individualized support plan based on a holistic picture of the student’s educational goals, need for financial aid and other support, and any obstacles they may face to re-enrolling and, ultimately, earning a credential. Success coaches then use a multichannel outreach approach—from phone calls and text messages to emails and video chats—to continuously and proactively connect with students.

Adult learners often do not have time in their busy day to track down the proper support services when they have a question, and it can be intimidating to seek out assistance when your needs seem to differ so much from your peers. Dedicated success coaches provide steady, reliable, and compassionate support that meets learners where they are and helps them envision where they can go next.

The circumstances that result in students stopping out are not likely to change dramatically after their departure. In many cases, the challenges these learners face grow even more complex as the years pass. Regaining students’ trust starts with identifying and acknowledging how institutions have previously failed them—and demonstrating how that self-reflection has led to new resources and support that ensure higher education doesn’t fail them a second time.


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