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Why adults don’t return to community college classrooms

Research published earlier this week in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis may shed light on why adult learners have a low community college graduation rate. The study authors suggest that several factors explain why adults with college credits often “stop out.”

Nationally, millions of Americans have earned college credit without completing a degree program. In Michigan alone, nearly a million people have “some college, no degree.” These adult learners have become a juicy target for state officials and community colleges alike. Returning even a small fraction of these people to the classroom could yield significant economic benefits for the entire state.

The stop-out problem isn’t limited to one region or course of study. Community colleges have always had an abysmally low graduation rate. Researchers from the University of Virginia, the University of Florida and the University of California Berkeley found that efforts to recruit older students were only marginally successful.

The researchers examined data on nearly 200,000 students who left the Virginia Community College System without graduating between 2009 -2014. About 14% of these students had earned at least 30 credits with at least a 2.0 GPA prior to disenrolling. The researchers focused their research on these students. According to the researchers, most students who stopped short of completion experienced serious academic difficulties early in their enrollment period. This lack of early academic success likely made it more difficult to remain enrolled.

Additionally, students who left without graduating were able to steadily increase their wages, despite not having a college credential. Further, more than half of students who withdrew from classes did not major in high-earning fields. This further refined the calculus for many students. Simply, there was little incentive to return to school to earn a degree in a low-wage field.

Community college should identify, eliminate barriers to completion

To compound the problem, re-enrollment is not always a simple matter. The researchers’ analysis showed that only about 3% of the students they studied could easily re-enroll in fields of study that would lead to high-wage employment. Under these circumstances, most students would have to spend significant time and resources before they could return to their coursework. This additional commitment often created a nearly insurmountable barrier to re-enrollment.

Further, many students who dropped out experienced an “event” in the semester prior to their disenrollment. That event corresponded to a noticeable decline in academic performance. Returning students may have to retake the courses in their most recent semester before they could continue with their studies.

The researchers concluded that community colleges would need to provide intensive support for older students who return to the classroom. Additionally, community colleges could develop interventions for students who show signs of “academic distress” early in their enrollment. In the long run, preventing students from withdrawing from school may result in a higher graduation rate among vulnerable students.

One strategy to discourage disenrollment would be to reduce the number of academic programs that lead to low-wage work. When students see a clear financial benefit to enrolling or remaining enrolled, they will be less likely to abandon their programs.

Photo Credit: Brandon Debes , via Flickr