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Retaining Older Students When the Economy Picks Up

By Sonya Stinson

Older students are leaving college early to go back to work. Here are a few strategies for convincing them to finish their degrees.

When the economy tanked back in 2008, community college was a popular option for many out-of-work adults looking to upskill in pursuit of new career opportunities.

But research suggests that, as the economy has picked up, older students are increasingly ditching back-to-school plans in favor of paying careers.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports that enrollment at the nation’s two-year public colleges has declined for three straight years, dropping 3.6 percent between spring 2012 and spring 2013, and 2.7 percent between spring 2013 and spring 2014. The sharpest enrollment declines were reported among students older than 24. Community college enrollments for students in that age group declined 5.9 percent between 2013 and 2014 compared with a decrease of 0.5 percent among students 24 and younger.

With older, nontraditional students accounting for about 40 percent of the U.S. community college population, it’s easy to see why administrators are concerned about the decline. While many people return to college after they retire (in some places, the 50-plus student population is among the fastest growing), the reality is that too many nontraditional students are leaving college without earning a degree or certificate. That reality threatens to put a dent in completion rates and, by extension, enrollment-based funding.

So, how do you keep students 24 and older from leaving college early? How can you convince these learners that staying on a prescribed academic path could benefit them in the long run? Mary Sue Vickers, director of AACC’s Plus 50 Initiative, offers this advice:

Offer a fast track to a degree. Colleges participating in AACC’s Plus 50 Initiative, which aims to accelerate the number of baby boomers earning degrees or certificates, boast an average completion rate of about 40 percent, says Vickers. That’s notably higher than the 31 percent rate the National Center for Educational Statistics reports for first-time, full-time community college students who complete two-year degree programs within three years.

Vickers says one of the keys to that success has been the steady introduction of new policies and programs intended to shorten the time it takes to earn a degree. For instance, participating colleges might offer credit for life experience or national certification exams.

“Take into account the objectives of the students. They want credentials or certifications to increase their labor-market competitiveness, and they need to get back to work quickly. Revise courses so that instead of a two-year program, maybe it’s a one-year program. Do fast-track training to get these students back to work.”

Strengthen student support services. Another concept included among the Plus 50 Initiative’s standards of excellence has proved useful for retaining nontraditional students:

“With the Plus 50 students, we find that student support services are an important part of the program,” Vickers says. “That includes academic advising that helps them with graduation plans from the very beginning, mapping out the classes for future semesters and emphasizing the importance of enrolling in the appropriate classes.”

She recommends creating step-by-step guidebooks, with information about how to choose the right courses, apply for financial aid and access other resources for student support.

Focus on long-term career advancement. When students have bills to pay and families to support, the opportunity to go back to an old job or get a new one is often hard to turn down. To counter the lure of an immediate paycheck, Vickers says colleges should promote awareness of the impact of higher-education credentials on long-term career advancement.

Degree impact

The findings of a 2010 study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce bear repeating: By 2018, 63 percent of all jobs will require at least some postsecondary education. What’s more, 75 percent to 90 percent of jobs in the fast-growing employment segments of information services, professional and business services and healthcare services will demand education and training beyond high school.

The Plus 50 Encore Completion Program, a component introduced in 2012, provides training for careers in education, healthcare and social services, with a goal of reaching 10,000 students. Graduates of the program include Denise Rebman, a 54-year-old former hairstylist who got a degree in health information management at Spoon River College, in Illinois, and is currently employed at a local hospital.

Vickers says success stories like these can go a long way toward persuading nontraditional students to stick with their degree programs to benefit from the long-term payoff.

What strategies does your college employ to keep older students enrolled? Tell us in the Comments.

Sonya Stinson

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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