Report Finds Lower Completion Rates for Students in Two-Year Institutions, Adult Learners

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Lawmakers and higher education experts are doubling down on efforts to better serve nontraditional students; reports have been surfacing about the unique needs of this rising population, and both President Donald Trump and members of Congress have expressed their dedication to developing and funding programs that cater to this demographic of learners. A new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, however, found that these students are completing degrees at a much lower rate than their more-traditional counterparts.

The study, “Completing College: A State-level View of Student Completion Rates,” analyzed the graduation rates of more than 2.2 million students who enrolled in post-secondary institutions in 2011.

While 64.7 percent of students who attended four-year public institutions graduated within six years, only a little more than one-third (37.5 percent) of students at two-year institutions completed a degree within six years and only half of adult learners (48.9 percent) graduated within six years at four-year institutions, according to the new data.

In a recent report from the American Council on Education (ACE), the authors argue that institutions are not currently meeting the needs of these students nor helping them complete degrees.

“Whether because of age, employment duties, military enlistment, or responsibilities like caregiving, many of these learners face unique obstacles in finishing a degree because many institutions were not designed to work for them,” the authors wrote. “...College and university leaders must ultimately realize that higher education policy and practice need to evolve so that they are better able to accommodate post-traditional learners’ need to balance life, work, and education.”

The authors argue that not only would catering to nontraditional students help 1.1 million Americans to overcome poverty, but it would also bring in an additional $111.6 billion in post-tax income and $43.2 billion in tax revenue in just one year.

In addition to facing barriers to higher education such as supporting and raising a family, nontraditional learners are also at a disadvantage when it comes to knowing what financial aid they qualify for. Unlike most traditional learners, who have the support and guidance from their high schools and parents when it comes to applying for financial aid, nontraditional students may give up on filling out the FAFSA as they try to navigate through questions that may not have the answers to. To combat this issue, NASFAA published updated tips sheets last summer to help this unique demographic of students access higher education.   

The President has also taken steps to cater to nontraditional learners through his fiscal year 2019 budget proposal, which, despite hefty cuts to aid programs, included plans to expand Pell Grant funding to students in short-term programs.  

“There is no ‘one-size fits all’ approach to postsecondary education,” Trump wrote in his infrastructure plan accompanying the budget request. “Rather, there are multiple pathways to success for students, and federal law should enable students to explore and access these pathways.”

Both the House and Senate have expressed their commitment to these students in their bills to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. The House bill —  dubbed the PROSPER Act and waiting to be brought to the floor for a vote — includes support for apprenticeships programs, which aim to prepare students for the workforce outside of the classroom, and the Senate education committee held a series of hearings to inform its bill, some of which touched on this demographic of learners. In one hearing focused on access and innovation, the committee, spearheaded by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), heard from witnesses about the importance of programs that best serve nontraditional students and ensure they complete degrees, such as Competency-Based Education (CBE) programs.

“Our reauthorization and today’s hearing is focused on students… whether it is an 18-year-old college freshman, a mom returning to school to finish her bachelor’s while working full-time, or a 25-year-old low-income student who is the first in his family to attend college,” Alexander said. “In other words, how can Congress create an environment for colleges to innovate to meet the needs of today’s — and tomorrow's — students?”  

The Senate has yet to release its bill.


Publication Date: 3/2/2018

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