At a time when policymakers are intensifying their calls to get more students in and through college, 31 million adults are stuck in limbo – having completed some college – but not enough to earn a degree, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse.
The report examined the demographics and attendance behaviors of adults who enrolled in college within the last 20 years, but left without completing a certificate or degree program. Of those individuals, about 4 million – or just more than 12 percent – are potential graduates who have at least two years’ worth of progress.
President Barack Obama has repeatedly said it’s a goal of his administration to make strides toward increasing the country’s adult college attainment rate to 60 percent by the year 2020. The Lumina Foundation hopes to accomplish the same by the year 2025. The United States, which in 1990 was the world leader in college attainment, now ranks 12th among 25- to 34-year-olds, at 43 percent.
But rather than solely focusing on funneling new, younger students through the college pipeline, policymakers and higher education institutions alike should find ways to recruit and help such adult learners complete their college journeys, says Doug Shapiro, executive research director of the National Student Clearinghouse.
“We’ve always known there are a lot of people who start college and don’t finish. We’re trying to get a better handle on who’s in that population and really see to what extent this population can become a resource, as opposed to an issue,” Shapiro says. “It ’s widely recognized that we can’t reach that goal just by focusing on traditional aged kids coming out of high school.”
While the population of adults is diverse, there are a few things they have in common. Many former students enrolled several times, meaning they left and came back after breaks in their education. Less than one-third of the students in question were enrolled for one term. Most of the individuals are also adult learners over the age of 24. Overall, 60.4 percent were over the age of 24, and more than half of both subsets (those with at least two years’ of progress, and those with less than two years’ progress) fell into that age group.
Potential college graduates also had many similarities with those who actually completed college, in terms of their age and the number of institutions they attended, Shapiro says. The biggest differentiation was that those who have not completed their programs left school more often.
“People may have left due to family reasons, they may have stopped out to work for a time,” Shapiro explains. “Some may have left to go into military service – there are all sorts of things.”
Providing more flexibility for federal financial aid regulations could help these students move forward, Shapiro says. Currently, financial aid dollars can only follow a student for 150 percent of the program time, or six years.
Clearinghouse researchers also noted in the report that certain outreach programs could prove beneficial. Project Win-Win, for example, worked with 61 colleges in nine states to identify students whose records identified them as eligible for degrees, or those who were within “striking distance” of an associate degree. It identified nearly 42,000 eligible students, 6,733 of whom were able to receive associate degrees.
Lawmakers seem to be recognizing the needs of these types of students. The House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill Wednesday as part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act that would direct Education Secretary Arne Duncan to select up to 30 programs to run competency-based education programs. Those types of programs are helpful for certain students because they allow them to potentially be awarded college credit for certain competencies, such as skills learned through different jobs or from military experience.
“Instead of awarding a student credit hours for time spent in class, competency-based education allows a student to learn at a pace tailored to his or her specific needs,” said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chair of the House education committee, in a statement. “If you’re a single mom, you may need more time to complete your degree while juggling the demands of work and kids. Or if you’re a dad out of a job with a family to support, four years sitting in a classroom is time you do not have.”
The Department of Education also announced plans to select four colleges to participate in its Experimental Sites Initiative, through students would be permitted to use their financial aid dollars at programs that run competency-based education models or assessments of prior learning. The idea was unveiled as a part of Vice President Joe Biden’s “Ready to Work” report last week.
“At a time when a college degree matters more than ever, we have to provide a flexible, innovative experience that can meet the needs of every American,” Duncan said in a statement. “This initiative will enable institutions to try some of their best ideas and most promising practices to provide more students with the opportunity to pursue a higher education and become equipped for success in today’s workforce.”
Many potential college graduates identified in the clearinghouse report were also enrolled at both two-year and four-year colleges at some point in their careers, which could present problems with transferring credits.
Colleges could also better serve students struggling to complete degrees by accepting college education equivalencies, as determined by the American Council on Education, or allowing for assessments of prior learning, as offered by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, says John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College. The course equivalencies the ACE reviews can sometimes include military training or employer training program, whereas CAEL’s process evaluates portfolios of prior experience, such as from skills acquired on the job.
“We acknowledge experience can be a very powerful feature and it’s incumbent upon us to have the assessments and assessors who can determined the appropriateness of those learning experiences,” Ebersole says.
But as to whether policymakers are living up to their promises to address roadblocks to obtaining college degrees, the jury is still out, Shapiro and Ebersole agree.
“There’s a lot of recognition of these challenges, and policymakers are trying to address them, but I think there’s probably still some ways to go,” Shaprio says.
Ebersole says there’s a gap between announcement and execution on the part of the Department of Education, and that red tape and overregulation in submitting accountability information often get in the way of making improvements in a timely manner.
“We believe in the goal, we want to help the goal, but we wish the department would quit making it so difficult for us,” Ebersole says.