Hidden Pockets of Promise: A Close Look at Potential Completers

Blog Post
Cathy from Philadelphia. She returned to college in 2008, earned A.S. in 2011; B.S. in 2014, M.S in 2019
Dec. 12, 2019

The Graduate! Network and New America are at the forefront of a movement to get former college students who did not graduate, to come back and finish a postsecondary credential. Our work, as discussed here and here, provides insight into the pathways of adults who engaged with The Graduate! Network community programs, seeking information, guidance, and support as they navigate their way back to and through college.

More than 90 percent of these adults have annual family incomes below $56,000 and half earn less than $24,000 a year. Most come from New Majority populations and historical inequities have impacted their socio-economic opportunities. They understand that a postsecondary degree carries personal, social, and economic value. They are motivated to complete their education. To understand how to best serve a population this diverse, our research looks for patterns or pathways that indicate best ways to meet these Comebackers where they are and support them most effectively.

Graduate!’s recent report Adults Returning to and Graduating from College: Pathways and Predictive Patterns, identified several variables highly predictive of both re-enrollment and graduation: the top one, cumulative credits toward a degree, is reflected in the findings of a recent report from the NSC’s Research Center Some College, No Degree 2019 that analyzed college data from 37 million students who make up this population.

The NSC report identified ten percent of the national Some College, No Degree population-- or 3.5 million people-- as having a high potential to complete their postsecondary education because they have earned at least two years of college credit.

Applying the NSC definition, we found that forty-three percent of students with some college no degree who engaged with The Graduate! Network community-based programs were potential completers – more than 4 times higher than the overall population. This is a group that took a decisive first step by asking for help. Before they connected with a college and re-enrolled, however, they spent on average 8 months working with a Graduate!-trained specialist to prepare to go back to college. One in five spent more than a year preparing for re-enrollment.

This is not surprising – we see firsthand that adults who want to return to school often face major hurdles. It is not easy to find the right program, sort out financial aid issues, deal with existing student loan debt that is sometimes in default, and beef up computer skills to take online classes. The Graduate Network’s community partners help navigate these barriers and ease the entry back to college, and then provide encouragement and services up to graduation. After re-enrolling, on average it then took our potential completers 1.5 years to graduate.

Of course, after re-enrolling some students persist and some don’t. NSC reports that over the past five years, of the 3.8 million Some College, No Degree students who re-enrolled nationwide, 25 percent (940,000) completed degrees. Twenty-nine percent (more than a million) were still enrolled as of December 2018. Graduation rates of our potential completers in a five-year window, were only slightly higher than for the national average. But 66 percent of our potential completers--fully double the national average--stayed continuously enrolled after returning to college until graduation. They just needed more time.

Another 20 percent of our potential completers had one or more additional stop-outs en route to graduation, some as many as four. The NSC report also definitively supports our conclusion that a stop-out period does not mean these students will never complete. Starts and stops are not unusual for adult learners. Indeed, this insight and the need to insist on equitable solutions in the completion landscape was the Graduate! Network’s founding call to action 15 years ago, and the impetus for this New America partnership. Dealing with family responsibilities, ebbs and flows of financial resources, balancing work and school, campuses that are not welcoming to all, mean that many adults have very good reasons for periods of non-enrollment.

Interestingly, 14 percent of our potential completers graduated immediately upon re-enrolling: these students who had basically reached the finish line were prevented from crossing it. This suggests some type of administrative hurdle such as filing needed paperwork or clearing outstanding fees or debt. Through our qualitative research, we are looking deeper into this phenomenon and will publish those findings on this platform in 2020.

Our research tells us that policymakers and colleges must set up systems that lower administrative burdens around re-enrolling, staying enrolled, and graduating, and provide support for students to help handle the life events that get in the way of persistence and graduation. Finishing college is hard. External support networks also play a critical role in guiding people to meet their educational goals. The Graduate! Network’s 40+ affiliated communities and state initiatives are doing just that!

Funding for this project is provided by Lumina Foundation.

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Related Topics
Adult Education Higher Education Access and Affordability