Report Offers Policy Recommendations to Help Adult Students Complete Degrees

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Adults returning to college to earn degrees may be misinformed about how they can finance their education and the best way to ensure they attain a credential, according to a new report.

The report, “A Major Step: What Adults Without Degrees Say About Going (Back) to College,” published by the nonprofit, bipartisan group Public Agenda, found that adult learners have continued to lag behind so-called traditional students in terms of completion rates and offers several policy recommendations to assist adults earn degrees.     

“Although traditional-age students outnumber adult learners in college, the percent of adults enrolling in college continues to grow. Yet adult students have lower graduation rates than their younger peers,” authors Rebecca Silliman and David Schleifer wrote.

They found that adults, which they defined as 18- to 55-year-olds who completed high school but were not enrolled in a postsecondary institution, are split in their belief that returning to college is a worthwhile financial investment, with those considering associate degrees or certificates being the most doubtful about the value of the degree, and that their top concern when deciding whether to return to school is taking on student debt and balancing their studies with raising a family. Other concerns the respondents cited included difficulty understanding the financial aid process, affording textbooks and class materials, and paying their rent and buying food in addition to tuition.

Surprisingly, the study found that while the adults surveyed expressed concern related to dropping out — such as financial struggles and family care — only one-third said they were concerned about having to drop out. Additionally, the authors noted a report that found that almost half (48 percent) of students who enroll in a postsecondary institution when they are above the age of 20 drop out, compared to 26 percent of those who are 20 or younger.

To address this issue, the authors suggested that policymakers “broaden the conversation about college costs to include not only tuition, but housing, transportation and food.”

“Emergency financial aid, transportation stipends and food assistance can all be scaled up to alleviate some of the most pressing affordability burdens of attending college, helping more students complete their degrees. This is especially important for low-income students,” the authors wrote.

Another concerning finding, according to the authors, was the fact that many adults said they planned to finance their education through grants and scholarships, which the authors deemed “too hopeful.” While 13.1 million students received Direct Subsidized Loans, Direct Unsubsidized Loans, or Perkins loans in 2017, only 8.6 million received Pell Grants or Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), the authors wrote.

The authors recommended that financial aid counseling not be limited to entrance and exit counseling, and that “relevant, easily accessible financial aid counseling should be available when choosing a college, during enrollment and even after college completion,” in order to paint a realistic picture for adult learners about how they can finance their education.  

Additionally, the study found that the way adults plan to go to school can be troubling, and cause them to spend more money on their education.

“Most adult prospective students plan to attend college in ways that can make completion more difficult, including transferring between institutions and going to school part-time. Moreover, about a third will start college unsure of what they want to study, an increase since 2013,” the authors found.

The authors wrote that this phenomenon emphasizes the need for guided pathways programs at institutions, which help student structure their education and can lead to a shorter time to completion.   

“Higher education leaders, administrators, educators and policymakers need to understand adults’ aspirations, worries and needs as they consider whether college is worth it for them and, if it is, what college they will choose,” the authors wrote. “Understanding the perspectives of adults who are considering going (back) to college or a university can position higher education institutions and other stakeholders to help adult learners make good choices and get the support they need to complete their degrees or certificates.”


Publication Date: 6/4/2018

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