New Study on Postsecondary Outcomes for Returning Adult Students

By Katherine Saunders

On Tuesday, the American Council on Education, InsideTrack, NASPA, UPCEA, and the National Student Clearinghouse released a joint study highlighting the persistence and completion patterns of non-first-time college students, a group about which we know very little because of their absence from major federal postsecondary databases.

Adult students make up a growing portion of today’s undergraduate students. Forty-four percent of undergraduate students are age 25 or older and 51 percent are independent for the purpose of determining eligibility for financial aid. Unlike “traditional” students who attend a four-year institution directly after high school, adults students often exhibit less traditional enrollment patterns, with some having delayed enrollment, others having dropped out or stopped out of college after accumulating credits but not completing a degree, and others mix full- and part-time enrollment while trying to balance work, family, and school.

The new joint study breaks down college completion disparities of returning adult students by institution type and state. Researchers found that just under 34 percent of adult non-first-time (NFT) students completed their degree after 6 to 8 years, compared to 54 percent of first-time students. At public two-year institutions, where a majority of low-income adult returning students enroll, the completion rate for NFT students was 26 percent lower than full-time students.

Additionally, the data reveal that some states are doing a better job graduating returning adult students than other states. For instance, large states like California and Texas have dismal completion rates (24 and 38 percent, respectively) whereas smaller states like Delaware and the District of Columbia have the highest completion rates for NFT students (51 and 57 percent, respectively). It is not clear, however, what strategies lead to better student outcomes between states.

Adult returning students often balance multiple responsibilities such as class work, jobs, and family obligations. Forty-one percent work more than 20 hours per week and 26 percent are parents. To manage these multiple responsibilities, adult students require more flexible schedules and mix part-time and full-time enrollment over the course of their academic program. Despite these challenges, findings from this new study show that returning students with mixed enrollment actually complete at higher rates than their first-time mixed enrollment peers. This supports the continuing need for financial aid and other policies that support mixed enrollment. Although the federal Pell Grant supports part-time attendance, many state-level financial aid programs are limited to students who enroll full-time, limiting the financial resources available to returning adult students.

At a time where policy makers and leaders are working to increase college completion rates for adults, it is imperative for federal and state level grant programs to support part-time enrollment, including when students attend less than half-time. Financial aid should be designed to meet the cost of college and flexible enough to meet the needs of returning adult students. In the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, CLASP recommends that Congress preserve financial aid for students who attend a mix of part and full-time enrollment while in school in order to support the Nation’s college completion goals and help more low-income, working adult students earn postsecondary credentials to advance in the workforce.

This study brings to the forefront concerns with how effectively our postsecondary institutions are addressing the needs of the growing population of returning adult students. While financial aid is critical, it is only part of the solution. Innovations such as connecting students to public benefits, developing career pathways to good jobs, and instituting competency-based approaches should be more commonly  implemented at scale to support returning adult students. Employer demand for workers with some postsecondary education is expected to remain high; by 2020, nearly 65 percent of jobs will require some postsecondary education. We must ensure we’re doing everything we can to advance college completion goals and help more low-income, working adult students earn postsecondary credentials to advance in the workforce.