Motivating Adult Learners to Return to School

Higher education has seen steady enrollment declines in recent years. However, leaders’ preoccupation with flagging numbers overlooks another significant opportunity for potential students in adult learners. Often termed “non-traditional,” these individuals have some college experience but no degree.

It’s worth revisiting this population: In the United States, over 40 million adults fall into this “stopped-out” category. Despite the growing number of adults with some college but without a degree, fewer are re-enrolling than ever.

Factors like family obligations, financial strain, and failed courses on their transcripts are among the barriers keeping them from returning to school. Understanding the barriers to re-enrollment can give us valuable insight into how to motivate adult learners to re-enroll. The following strategies are worth considering when it comes to serving this largely un-tapped population.

Promote Flexibility

Because many adult learners often have full-time jobs, families, and more widespread obligations than traditional students, they need more flexibility in higher education program delivery. They’re unable to attend classes during the day, and many can’t come to campus consistently, either.

For these learners, online and asynchronous courses paired with accelerated programs give them the most flexibility to buckle down and complete their degree while continuing to care for family and work.

Find Ways to Honor Past Credits

When they’ve been out of school for some time, adult learners are frequently concerned about credit for past learning. They may have courses on their transcripts that are more than five or ten years old, long after most institutions will consider them valid.

For these learners, getting credit for courses taken can motivate them to take the next steps.

Engage in Strategic Outreach

When students leave your institution after stopping out, don’t let things drop there. Have a strategy ready to re-engage them. Many institutions will send a follow-up email to students, but that’s not enough. Today’s learners expect personalized outreach that addresses their circumstances and concerns.

Consider taking this opportunity to work with your staff to connect with these students. Your staff can provide information about barriers to completion, steps to re-enrollment, and access to community support.

During these conversations, try to help students establish a plan for when they’ll return.

Additionally, create marketing materials that directly address the concerns of these learners. Unlike traditional students, they’re not concerned with the college experience. Instead, they want an efficient method for degree completion that meets their needs.

Remove Barriers to Enrollment (and Re-Enrollment)

After students decide to complete their degree, you should make enrolling as easy as possible. Provide adult learners with access to academic counseling and priority registration to get the courses they need to graduate quickly.

If a student earned credits under a different course catalog, consider giving them credit for prior learning instead of requiring them to retake courses. This gives them a sense of progress rather than filling in gaps that didn’t exist before.

Other barriers like outstanding institutional debt and failing grades on transcripts can also keep students away. Near completers are more likely to return if their debts are forgiven and application fees are waived. Some institutions also provide grade forgiveness or provide a clear path to replace failed grades.

Support Return Students

Once stopped-out students have returned to the academic environment, they need support to succeed. Often, they’re disconnected from communities that provide support to typical students. Your institution can provide support through adult-focused advising, orientation for returning students, and online resources.

Also, consider that many of these students don’t feel seen by their community. Provide them with a community of support, and they’re more likely to complete their degrees in a timely fashion.

Our Takeaway

Your school should create programs and tools focusing on stopped-out learners to reach this valuable demographic. And, while re-engaging students who leave your institution is a great first step, these strategies can help your institution attract adult students from others, as well. With the right guidance and support, they can take the steps necessary to complete their education and jumpstart their careers. By developing flexible programming and telling a clear story that shows success, you’ll attract and retain non-traditional students by showing them how education can work for them.

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