Today’s issue of Inside Higher Education has an article by Paul Fain, “Within Striking Distance,” that looks at the 31 million Americans who have attended college but who have not completed a college degree.
Of this group, about a third—10 million—stopped out after the first semester. Another 17.5 million stopped before reaching the third year, and 4 million had moved past the two-year mark. He calls the last group “potential completers.” Fain notes:
The most common type of potential completer is 24 to 29 years old and has been out of higher education for two to six years, the report found. About 600,000 women and slightly fewer than 500,000 men fit this description.
More than one in four potential completers enrolled in college continuously or intermittently for seven years or longer. And the study found that about 36 percent spread their enrollments over four to six years.
These students are often the core target for continuing and distance education programs. However, this is not just a marketing challenge. It is not enough to attract these students back to higher education. Experience shows that, if a returning student is not successful the second time around, chances are great that they will not return for a third try. There are many reasons beyond academic preparation why a student would need to drop out or stop out of college: financial problems, family crises, health, changes in one’s personal goals, etc. Returning students often must continue to deal with these issues and, in addition, may bring with them new challenges, such as the need to maintain a full-time job while taking classes and to balance study with their roles as spouses and parents. Quite often, these non-academic life issues are the major barrier that adult learners face when they return to finish their degree.
Marketing is not enough. Institutions that are serious about helping returning students succeed must invest in advising and counseling staff who can help these students integrate learning into their adult lives. This is essential to the long-term success of these “potential completers.” Whether the institution is public, private, or for-profit, we also have an obligation to the broader society—taxpayers who often help fund these students through state and federal scholarships and loans--to provide compassionate pre-enrollment counseling and academic and personal advising to help returning adult learners find the best program for them and to succeed once they return.