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3 ways to stop losing adult degree completers

September 24, 2021, By Lauren Edmonds, Senior Director, Research Development

When we talk about the more than 36 million Americans with some college but no degree, it’s not an abstract number. 40,000 of them live in my county, nearly one in five adults. They’re my family and neighbors. Our community lags the nation in degree completion by eight percentage points. So, when our researchers began work on adult degree completion program design, it was personal.

Adult bachelor’s degree completion programs hold perhaps the greatest promise, but also the greatest peril in higher education – completing a bachelor’s degree increases someone’s earnings by 49 percent. But completing a bachelor’s degree is no easy task.

  • $22K

    Additional annual earnings for someone who completes their bachelor’s degree

  • 3%

    Of adults with some college, but no degree in 2013 had graduated by 2018

Part of the challenge these students face can be navigating a higher education landscape that isn’t designed for them. Adults returning for bachelor’s degrees look very different than the late teens and early 20s students our schools predominantly serve, and while many of us know this intellectually, you wouldn’t guess that looking at how programs are designed.


I work full-time. Many times I work overtime. I’m married. I have a 13-year-old son. Many times I have no time for myself. So how am I going to have time for school?


Female prospective adult degree completer

New York

If you hope to graduate adult degree completers, you need to design bachelor’s completion programs with three characteristics in mind:

  • Adult Experiences and Obligations: adults bring years of work and life experience into the classroom, but are also balancing school against family, work, and other responsibilities
  • Past College Experience: returning adults earned previous academic credit and made progress toward graduation, but haven’t completed yet and are more at-risk academically than the general undergraduate population
  • Financial Limitations: that earlier college experience likely led to student debt as well as the potential for obstacles like bursar holds

Each of these characteristics leads to ways to make your programs more responsive to adult student needs. Across our conversations with our Professional and Adult Education partners, we’ve found three areas where most programs fall short and that you can proactively address.


1. Award credit for prior learning and experience

In our survey of prospective adult degree completers, respondents identify cost and time to completion as the most significant obstacles to enrollment, and credit for prior learning and experience can minimize both barriers. However, many universities lack the infrastructure to award credit for prior learning and experience, which became one of the missed opportunities highlighted most often in our recent roundtable discussions.

Case Study: Earning Up to 33 credits for $3,170 through “Writing About Experience” at UMass Amherst

Interdisciplinary Studies students in UMass Amherst’s University Without Walls spend a semester in “Writing About Experience.” Students develop their prior learning portfolio as part of a three-credit course and can earn up to 30 additional credits for that prior learning. Prior learning credits also cost students far less than in-class education: students pay $1,305 for up to 15 prior learning credits (the average awarded), or $1,905 for 16 or more.


2. Build conditional admissions pathways

Past academic performance isn’t a perfect indicator of students’ abilities today. In fact, many degree completion program directors told us their students are among the highest academic performers at their schools, but a low GPA understandably raises concerns among faculty and students themselves about their likelihood to succeed. Faculty fear lowering academic standards risks enrolling students unable to complete, as well as harming the institution’s reputation. Prospective degree completers are often afraid they won’t be able to keep up with classmates or complete coursework successfully. Removing GPA minimums for admission or offering academic forgiveness expands access, while intensive support and conditional admissions programs ensure students are on track for success.

Case Study: Proving Their Way in Through Wisconsin’s Badger Ready Program

Seventy-seven students since late 2018 have used the Badger Ready Program to enroll at the University of Wisconsin despite a GPA too low for typical transfer student admission. Students take 12 credits as non-degree students, and those with a cumulative 3.0 GPA or above are admitted as degree-seeking students to complete their bachelor’s degree.

3. Address past financial burdens

College stop-outs have an average of $14,000 in student loan debt, and as referenced earlier have been earning far less than their peers who graduated. On top of this, bursar holds at your school or previous schools can prevent applicants from retrieving past transcripts or enrolling for the coming semester. Offer scholarships or debt forgiveness to get adult degree completers back into the classroom.

Case Study: Overcoming Debt Barriers with Warrior Way Back at Wayne State University

Adults returning to Wayne State University can benefit from Warrior Way Back, a program that forgives up to $1,500 owed to the University. Students must have stopped out of the University for 2+ years but have been in good academic standing with a GPA or 2.0 or higher.

On the larger scale, better designing your offerings to accommodate adult degree completers as a distinct audience allows you to serve far more students, like the University of Memphis graduating hundreds of students over the years through their Finish Line program. On the smaller scale, with the right program, maybe my cousin with three past college attempts, two kids, and one public servant’s salary gets to check the “bachelor’s degree” box on the next census. Think about if your program would work for him, and you’ll be off to a good start.

Lauren Edmonds

Senior Director, Research Development

Read Bio

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