Increase Enrollment – Seize The Day

Cheryl King headshotBy Cheryl King Ed.D Edu Alliance Group Advisory Council April 6, 2020 – These are challenging times for colleges and universities even before the COVAD-19 crisis.  Public concern about tuition rates, fewer high school students to fill classrooms, and declining enrollment are just a few of the issues keeping higher education leaders awake at night. I would suggest there is no better time to consider and plan how your institution can serve or better serve adults. The higher education market is changing rapidly, and it’s time for us to change as well.

As a former president of a small private college, and years working in education and workforce development at the state policy level, I understand the pressures of increasing enrollment while dealing with shrinking budgets.  I propose we seize the day in these challenging times by recruiting and enrolling adults.  Millions of adults are unemployed or under-employed across the U.S. because they lack credentials and degrees to compete in the current and future workforce.

Adults without credentials and degrees live in every state.  Many struggle with low-skill, low-wage jobs while trying to take care of their families.  Some tried college, but for several reasons, they didn’t graduate.  Some never thought of going to college because they didn’t graduate from high school.  They are working-age Americans, and their dreams of a better job and a better life for themselves and their kids may not be realized without some form of higher education.

The statistics are staggering.  Twenty-four million working-age adults—12 percent of the U.S. workforce—have not completed high school.  The number of adults earning a GED is now at an all-time high, but the percentage going on to higher education is embarrassingly low.  Some states don’t even record this statistic.   There are also 104 million adults 25 and older who hold a high school diploma only.  Currently, almost a third of U.S. high school graduates do not enroll in college.

There’s more.  An additional 36 million started college but didn’t finish.  In just the past two decades alone, more than 31 million adults left college without receiving a certificate or a degree.  http://www.NewReport:AmericanAdultsCiteWork-RelatedIssuesAsTopReasonforStoppingOutofCollege.

The Lumina Foundation reports that most of the job growth in the U.S. since 2007 has come from jobs requiring some form of post-secondary education.   Jim Clifton, chairman of the Gallup Organization, predicts that by 2025, the United States will need 23 million more degree holders than our colleges and universities will have produced.

It’s an interesting, if not challenging, dichotomy.   Millions of adults need credentials and degrees, yet enrollment is stagnant.  College closures are on the rise due to low enrollment and corresponding financial constraints.  Since 2016, ninety-one nonprofit colleges and universities have closed or merged with other institutions. (Education Dive, 2020). The Chronicle, 2020 Trends Report, states that 40 percent of colleges will struggle in the near future. Some of these are smaller schools that live or die on the margins, holding their breath until enrollment goals are met for the next year or two.

It seems reasonable that some of college closures and mergers could be avoided if they embraced the adult student market.    The definition of a traditional student living in dorms, eating in dining halls, and playing on athletic teams are changing, with 30 percent of adults in the current college market.  But it’s not good enough.  We can do more.    Most of all, let’s understand that times have changed and we must change as well, or we risk closing the doors and selling the campus.

There is hope, however, as more adults are in college today, with large online schools such as Southern New Hampshire or Western Governor’s University and others serving thousands of adults.  But smaller state and private schools can be just as effective with some retooling of their programs and schedules.   According to Washington Monthly, the best colleges for adults tend to be regional public universities, private schools, and community colleges.  Check out the list of top 10 institutions at www.washingtonmonthly.com or the top 25 schools for adults going back to college at www.bestcollegereviews.org.

Colleges and universities have options to consider if they decide to recruit adult students.  Following is a sample of initiatives focused on attracting and serving adults, and programs involving partnerships and collaborations.   There are many others not included here.

  • Adult education programs are available in most communities, helping adults improve basic literacy skills and prepare for the GED or equivalency. Think about providing the students with information about your institution, connecting them with college counselors, and providing materials about how your institution can serve them. Consider offering a scholarship to GED graduates.
  • Websites. Take a fresh look at your institution’s website with the adult student in mind.   Are adult students represented in campus and classroom photos? Does the term adult student appear on your front page?  Do your recruiting and print materials refer to opportunities for adults?
  • Online degrees and flexible scheduling. Herzing University offers Adaptive Learning in the general education curriculum and various nursing programs, both on-campus and online. Adaptive Learning systems leverage data analytics and artificial intelligence to modify the learning experience based on student mastery of course content.  Faculty use the data generated by the student to inform them of the best use of class time. https://smart-classroom.educationtechnologyinsights.com/cxoinsights/why-adaptive-learning-benefits-nontraditional-students-nid-673.html.
  • Credit for prior learning allows students to move through coursework by earning credit for what they already know. Learn more by contacting the Council for Adult Experiential Learning.  CAEL.org.
  • Competency-based Education (CBE) is learning measured in competencies, rather than seat time. Students advance through programs based on mastering all required competencies, and courses or programs feature substantial self-pacing by students. Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 28, 2019 (Slow and Steady for Competency-Based Education). Consider joining the Competency-Based Education at http://www.cbenetwork.org.
  • High-quality advising services at convenient times and locations are vitally important. A recent report from the Lumina Foundation, Strada Education Network, and Gallup reveals that those who stopped out of college say they experienced significantly lower quality career and academic advising compared to their peers who graduated.   NewReport:AmericanAdultsCiteWork-RelatedIssuesasTopReasonforStoppingOutofCollege.

Adult students need access to advisors available 24/7, especially online.   There are companies that provide these types of services.

  • The Integrated Basic Educational Skills and Training (IBEST) model offered through community colleges in Washington state teaches students basic literacy and college-readiness skills along with work readiness skills so students can move through school and into jobs a quickly as possible. acf.hhs.gov or contact wdurden@sbctc.edu.
  • Employer Partnerships can take many forms, such as employer tuition reimbursement, and work and learn options. United Parcel Services and colleges/universities in Louisville, KY collaborate through Metropolitan College, allowing adults to work full-time and receive paid tuition benefits from UPS at various local institutions. Since its inception in 1998, this innovative partnership has helped thousands of students pursue free postsecondary education and on-the-job training while reducing workforce turnover at UPS from over 70% to less than 20%. More than 4,100 individuals have earned over 6,500 certificates, associate, bachelor, and graduate degrees. Source www.courier-journal.com-story-money-companies
  • Communities can also play an important role in partnerships. The Tennessee Reconnect program provides adults who do not have an associate or bachelor’s degree free tuition to attend a community or technical college.  Nashville is now working to close these equity gaps through a “sorting in” approach for education beyond high school. With the help of two novel programs— Reconnect Cafés and Reconnect Ambassadors—people can move into jobs with clear paths for growth in position and salary. (Two Unique Programs Are Helping Nashville Adults Go Back To School)

As educational attainment improves, the U.S. skill shortages will decrease, and the economy will increase.  Millions of adults will benefit from better jobs. Institutions will benefit with higher enrollment and financial stability.

But there is more to this story than keeping colleges and universities in business.  One of life’s greatest pleasures is watching graduates receive their diploma with tears of joy, and their family and friends cheering them on from the audience.   The joy and the thrill is the same regardless of age.

Get the ball rolling.  Seize the day.   Higher education attainment changes the lives of graduates and their families—forever.

Open the gates and seize the day

Don’t be afraid and don’t delay

Nothing can break us

No one can make us

Give our rights away

Arise and seize the day.

Seize the Day (Newsies, 1992)


Cheryl King an expert in the field of workforce development has dedicated her career focusing on adult and post secondary education at the state and national levels. She has held a variety of positions in state government and higher education. They include serving in 2006 as VP of External Relations then selected as President of Kentucky Wesleyan College from 2008-11, focusing on long term sustainability through a highly detailed Strategic Plan, that asked the tough questions.  She returned to state government as Senior Policy Advisor for Kentucky Council on Post-secondary Education to develop competency-based education options to help adults to be successful and complete a credential or degree.  Recently she has worked with the Lumina Foundation Strategy Labs program as a State Advisor to help states achieve the Foundation’s goal of 60% of U.S. adults with college degrees, certificates or quality credentials by 2025.

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