For too long, higher education institutions have failed to serve adult students well—and now they may be paying the price. COVID-19 has decimated new enrollments, with first-time enrollment among adult students taking an especially large dive. New enrollment dropped by 16.5% for adults aged 25 to 29, while those 30 and older saw a 23.9% drop. Meanwhile, the options for students continue to grow, with a recent study finding nearly a million unique credentials across the country.
It’s tempting to dismiss the enrollment decline as a temporary pause driven by the turmoil and uncertainty of the pandemic. But predominantly online colleges actually saw an increase in first-time enrollment among students age 25 and older. Those institutions, of course, have an edge in delivering flexible education remotely — but just as or more important, they were early leaders in understanding the unique needs of adult learners and creating pathways designed for their complex lives and particular goals.
National surveys from the Strada Education Network have consistently shown that career outcomes drive value for students, yet a recent survey found that a quarter of adults without a degree do not think additional higher education will improve their career prospects. When asked what would increase their confidence that college will pay off for them, they pointed to more direct partnerships with employers and better academic support. Many institutions already provide these services, but too often they rely on students to find them.
After all, “Students don't do optional,” as the popular phrase goes, and adult learners don’t have time for any optional in their lives. Yet, despite being one of the few universal truths about student engagement, far too many institutions persist in making critical steps along the pathway to graduation and career success optional. Higher education must instead make those steps standard practice.
Colleges and universities spend $90 billion a year on academic support and student support services, but more than a third of community college students never meet with an advisor and only half of students visit career services offices. That lack of support can have far-reaching consequences—delaying or even derailing graduation, increasing student costs and leading to poor career transitions and underemployment.
The alternative is not simply making things “mandatory.” Rather, we have to fundamentally change the college structure to build critical practices and supports into the day-to-day educational experience with working adults in mind. In some cases, that means eliminating options that we know don’t work best for students.
A growing number of institutions are beginning to do the hard work required. Georgia State University, for example, has mandated advising, and a number of institutions are implementing the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ High-Impact Educational Practices, which include building work-based learning opportunities into the curriculum. Strada reports that those opportunities are the-biggest factor in improving confidence in college outcomes for students without degrees.
And, rather than simply preparing students for professional certification exams, at our college we require students to take these sometimes-optional exams before graduation whenever possible. As a result, our participation and pass rates have grown by as much as 80% in programs such as medical assisting and medical coding and billing. For students with only a nine-month stackable certificate, professional certifications can increase starting salaries by 10 to 15 percent. In more advanced programs such as medical imaging, certification can add $12,000 a year, but it’s easy for students to procrastinate or never take the certification test if it’s not a requirement. Allowing students living at the economic margins—or any students, really—to potentially forego a salary boost seems short-sighted and irresponsible.
These are, of course, just a few areas where it’s critical to go beyond an add-on mentality to integrate critical supports and services. Orientation, academic advising, tutoring, career readiness, externships and access to financial and mental health counseling should all be built into the standard pathway through the institution and, when possible, into the curriculum. And new approaches that improve student outcomes shouldn’t be siloed in select programs.
The concept of increasing student success through built-in support is not new to higher education institutions. CUNY has gained national attention in recent years for its Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), which has more than doubled the three-year graduation rate for students in associate’s degree programs. ASAP creates robust supports for its students, including personalized advising, career counseling and a structured pathway that ensures students take the courses they need in the right sequence. And the good news is that other colleges are learning from these best practices and starting to replicate the model.
Although colleges are doing the right thing by creating these structured options, we must not be afraid to take away options that aren’t working. When we realized that students pursuing bachelor’s degrees had better work and learning outcomes if they started in stackable pathways, we decided to eliminate the traditional four-year pathway. We now only offer bachelor's completion programs that build on certifications, certificates and associate’s degrees rather than four-year programs without intermediate credentials. This “earn-and-learn” approach helps our adult learners stabilize their lives by earning short certificates and build context through professional employment as they work toward associate’s and bachelor’s degrees without losing credits along the way.
Similarly, as demand for blended programs grew, we noticed that long-term outcomes were better for many students in those programs than for students in traditional on-site programs—in large part because blended programs reduced stop-outs by increasing flexibility for students around work and family. Students benefited from being able to take courses in person when their schedules permitted and online at other times. Thus, we decided to move all of our programs to blended or online. This move expanded access to students for whom fully online programs aren’t ideal, but who are unable to attend full-time in person.
For many of today’s students, these practices are important. Three out of four college students have at least one “non-traditional” characteristic, such as working full-time, childcare or delaying enrollment. Often, just one added barrier or misstep—missing a deadline or taking a course they don’t need—can derail their education. Adult learners want and deserve great careers, and they depend on institutions to provide the most efficient pathway to make their dream a reality.
Our nation’s colleges must remove the guesswork for these students and implement promising strategies institution-wide that do not artificially restrict the pool of potential students. If they don’t, we will end up with increasing numbers of adults who do not seek higher education, or worse, students who have invested time and money without anything to show for it but debt.
In many cases, we know what to do to meet adult students' needs. It’s not just about implementing these best practices; it’s about making them the only practice.
Eric Bing is Chancellor of The College of Health Care Professions (CHCP), the largest allied health training college in Texas. He has devoted his career to expanding healthcare education and workforce development opportunities with a focus on adult learners, including increasing healthcare capacity in East Africa. Bing has chaired AmeriCorps for Texas, serves as a board member on the McKinsey Consortium for Learning Innovation, and is a member of Arizona State University’s Thunderbird Global Alumni Network Advisory Council.