Community colleges face a crisis. Are former students the answer?

By Dr. Mark A. Sorrells and Kai Drekmeier

More than a decade after the Obama administration called for the U.S. to lead the world in college completion, a recent update from Lumina Foundation reveals significant progress — and unfinished business.

Since 2009, the number of working-age adults with post-high school credentials has increased by 16 percentage points to nearly 54%. But there’s still a long way to go: The U.S. is not on pace to meet Lumina’s college attainment goal of 60% by 2025, and stubborn attainment gaps remain among underrepresented groups.

Community colleges have played a significant role in increasing educational attainment, improving lifetime earnings and powering the nation’s economic growth. Two recent economic impact studies — one from North Carolina’s community colleges and another from Fayetteville Tech Community College — found that the average associate-degree graduate will gain between $6,900 to $8,100 in annual earnings over someone with just a high school diploma. And for every dollar invested in Fayetteville Tech, its graduates get $5 in lifetime earnings, and North Carolina residents receive a return of $9.60 in added income and social savings.

But the nation’s community colleges have the capacity to do so much more. Community college enrollment fell by 1.1 million students between 2019 and 2022. Many of those learners joined the growing ranks of the more than 39 million American adults with college credit but no degree to show for their time, effort and money.

Five re-enrollment strategies

Adult learners who wish to return to college face numerous barriers — jobs, life commitments, extended absences from education, and an overly complicated education system. Here are five strategies to guide college leaders to breaking down these barriers and helping adult learners successfully re-enroll:

Determine if your institution is ready. This initial and important step requires a college to take a holistic look at numerous practices — from admissions and marketing, to registration and college policies — to see if it’s meeting the needs of potential students. Then the college must decide if it should reprioritize institutional resources or find new funding sources to support re-enrollment.

Fayetteville Tech’s self-study found that adult learners wanted to return to college to land better-paying jobs. So the college established an adult learning center to help re-entering students assess their career options and find workforce training programs that met their goals. The college also bought client relations management software to deliver customized messages to help adult learners navigate their education journeys and connect them to campus and community support services.

Tailor community outreach efforts to adult learners. Adult learners with jobs, families and complicated lives have different requirements than a student entering college right out of high school. They are keenly interested in a rapid return on their investment, so colleges should consider messaging around career outcomes and what students stand to gain by returning to school. Local libraries, churches and community-based organizations — places where people live and work — can help colleges find adult learners and overcome their potential skepticism about the cost and value of higher education.

Focus efforts on the most viable students. Because colleges have limited resources, institutions should start their efforts with learners who are closest to earning their degrees. Colleges should consider prioritizing students who have 15 or fewer credit hours remaining, or who left school less than two years ago, or who have small unpaid balances.

Fayetteville Tech offered to cover tuition for students who had recently stopped out with a GPA just shy of 2.0. With weekly tutoring and a dedicated support coach, 86% of these returning students completed the semester with overall GPAs above 2.0. The college saw a return of investment of $2 in new revenue for every dollar spent.

That population of potential students might be larger than imagined: The Institute for Higher Education Policy found that one in four students stopped out of college within six credits — less than a semester — of earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

Meet students where they are. Colleges must proactively arrange one-on-one conversations with adult learners to understand their mindset about college. This talk should determine if a student is ready to return to school, clarify their career goals, identify challenges they faced the last time they were enrolled, and set out a plan for re-enrolling. It’s about understanding the learner, focusing on their possibilities — not their deficits — and supporting them before and after they re-enroll.

Guide returning students to and through the final steps of re-enrolling. Because financial aid, course selection and registration are complicated, colleges must ensure they have staff dedicated to helping every student get the information they need. Colleges should consider developing a cross-campus map that shows the re-enrollment experience from a student’s perspective to identify steps that can be streamlined or removed.

It’s also critical that admissions and financial aid offices are open on some nights and weekends to accommodate adult learners with job, family and childcare responsibilities. The goal should be to create a process that’s as friction-free as possible.

Use this opportunity

Community colleges traditionally have not viewed reconnecting with former students as a strategic priority. But today they have an immense opportunity — and responsibility — to rise to the re-enrollment challenge, support learners as they return to campus, and guide them along the path to reach their education and career goals. By removing these barriers, community colleges can help millions of adult learners gain better skills so they can make better lives for themselves and their families and strengthen their communities and the nation.

This article originally appeared in CC Daily.

Kai Drekmeier

is co-founder and chief development officer at InsideTrack