This blog is the fourth in a series following the Supporting Adult Learners for Postsecondary Success convening, which took place in early October. In an effort to continue the important conversations surrounding adult learner success, we have invited guest bloggers to cover topics including adult financial aid, alternative credit accumulation, near-completers and additional financial supports for adult learners. This post comes from Ivy Love, policy analyst at New America.
Students in state and federal datasets are often disaggregated by the level of postsecondary credential they obtained or whether they earned a high school diploma and stopped there. And then, sandwiched between those groups, there’s the nebulous category of “some college, no degree.” Each of these students — who are often called “near-completers” — had a drive to seek out postsecondary education or training, put in hard work to earn credits toward a credential and then had a reason to leave. Certainly, a few students may leave college without a degree, start earning a family-sustaining wage and call it good. However, on average, we know that having a postsecondary credential helps graduates earn higher wages and avoid unemployment and poverty. We, in education policy and practice communities, need to better understand who near-completers are, why they left, and how postsecondary institutions can be more supportive, welcoming spaces for them to return and reap the full benefits of completing a credential.
States and institutions can start by reconnecting with former students who have lost touch with their colleges, like Indiana and Tennessee have done. Indiana has worked to identify adult students who could benefit from state grants and still need to finish their degrees; then, they used phone, email and other outreach tools to personally connect with former students. Tennessee has used billboards, radio ads and targeted postcards to reconnect with former students already more than halfway to earning a degree. Information about financial and other support available to returning students, especially those disconnected from prior institutions, opens the door for former students to believe that giving college another shot is within their reach.
Once colleges have reconnected with former students, it’s critical to make coming back to college as simple as possible. For students who have been away a few years, some administrative hurdles may crop up that could deter them from jumping back into their studies. Namely, institutions need flexibility and clear guidelines that allow them to accept as many of the student’s previous credits as possible. This takes two policy initiatives:
First, life may have taken a returning near-completer from one geographic area to another, leading them from one college to another. Inter-institutional transfer policies that keep adult learners, especially near-completers, in mind are essential to their success. Some states have already undertaken these measures, benefitting both young students carrying dual enrollment credit and adult students whose lives took them to new places and new institutions.
Second, students may have earned credits a long time ago, and they may run into limitations on whether their credits still count toward degree requirements that may have changed. This varies enormously from school to school, but smoothing this out for near-completers requires credit articulation policies that acknowledge returning students’ previous learning. If the student can demonstrate that they’ve maintained mastery of the material in a given course — and that the course is still relevant to their field — it shouldn’t matter when they took the class. Starting near-completers as far ahead as possible honors their previous work and demonstrates commitment from institutions — and states with cohesive credit articulation policies — to their success. After all, it would be a bit of a misnomer to call someone a near-completer if they had to start earning credits from scratch upon their return.
With supportive policies and institutional practices, states and institutions can ensure near-completers have the full weight of their previous work applied toward their current pursuit and are welcomed back to college with open arms.