Adults returning for college degrees

Scott Unger Published:

In 2007, the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education launched its Double the Numbers plan, designed to increase the number of bachelor's degree holders in the state by 2020. Graduating more from college is the most effective and efficient way to greater economic prosperity in the state, according to the council. Recently State Journal reporter Scott Unger sat down with CPE Communications Director Sue Patrick to discuss the plan and the council's strategies for returning more adults to college.

What is Project Graduate?

Project Graduate is an outreach program designed to recruit returning adults back to college. These are adults with 90 credit hours or more. It's a statewide collaborative. We work with all the public institutions and 10 independent institutions.

How do you go about getting adults back in school?

We found out in Kentucky that there are more than 500,000 adults with some college and we looked at our numbers here with our comprehensive data base at the CPE and figured out that there were 11,000 Kentuckians that attended a public institution and still lived in our state with 90 credit hours or more so that became the focus of Project Graduate. We met with all the institutions and said "We'll develop and pay for an outreach program if you will agree to do a few things on your end.'

Number one was to have a high touch response for any adults who called as a result of our outreach program. You've got to remember that adults are very busy. They work fulltime jobs, they're running car pool, they're engaged in their community and the thought of having to take off a day or two days of work to go run around on the campus to try to figure out what you need to know to re-enroll in college is daunting. What we wanted to do was provide the returning adult with a campus advocate that would take the call and would run around and get all the answers for the adults, find out what courses they needed to graduate, find out what financial aid might be available to them, answer all their questions. Also, the campuses have to provide incentives. Some of the incentives include some sort of tuition assistance, there's Quick Admit (where) they waive the application fee and some institutions provide career counseling. They put together a package of incentives to entice the returning adult back into college.

How has it gone so far?

It has exceeded all expectations. We've graduated 50 already; we're on track by the end of this semester to have 100 graduated. We've had 460 students enrolled. We've had over 1,500 inquiries. One of the best things about this program is we have built a statewide structure for the adult. If UK gets an inquiry from a former student and for whatever reason they can't serve the student, then they know who to call at Western or Murray or Morehead (universities) to help the student re-enroll.

Why are you focusing on returning adult students to college campuses?

Kentucky has to double the numbers of residents with bachelor degrees by the year 2020. There simply are not enough high school students in the pipeline to meet that goal even if they all graduated high school prepared for college, if they all enrolled, we retained them and graduated them.

There are 42 million adults in the nation with some college and we need to, across the nation, increase the number of people with bachelor's degrees. There's a strong correlation between bachelor's degrees and per capita income. In order for Kentucky and our nation to be economically competitive in the future, we need to increase our educational attainment.

Are there major causes for people going to college and stopping?

We did a survey over a year ago with adults with some college in Kentucky and what we found out was that they dropped out because of family obligations or they had difficulty with financing their college education or they got offered a good job.

How do you work to get past those barriers now? How do people find time to go back to school?

What we've attempted to do is, in Kentucky, we have a broader adult learner initiative going on and that's called the Kentucky Adult Learner Initiative. What we're doing there is looking at some policy recommendations that would make our institutions more adult friendly. If we could increase the amount of financial aid that could be allotted to adults, that would help a great deal. If we could offer more online distance learning courses and programs, that would also be beneficial. Because they have a time barrier that doesn't mean that they don't necessarily have time to go to college. They may not have time to (go to traditional classes). There are ways that we can help ease that barrier for them.

There are ways that we (are looking) at awarding credit for work experience or military experience. It's being done in isolated pockets. If you have been employed 20 years in a particular profession and have taken professional development, perhaps that aligns with some of the courses that you might need to take. There's a very innovative program at the University of Louisville and it's called (the) Workplace Leadership program. It is online and face-to-face (and) they award credit for prior learning so you can go in there if you've been a busy professional and actually find out how much credit they will award you. It can be up to 48 credit hours. That can include your past college experience, your military experience, if you're a banker (for example), all the professional development experience. It's too early to tell what will come out of that but it's a very interesting topic.

How soon are you looking to implement that?

The policy recommendations we expect by February of next year.

How big a factor is online learning?

It's huge. It's been huge in Kentucky ever since we launched the Kentucky Virtual University back in 1999. We did a survey in 2000 and two-thirds of the people who wanted to come to college wanted to learn online. When we repeated that question in our adult survey research last year the results were the same, about 70 percent preferred online learning (and) the flexibility that online learning provides. We all know that online learning is not for everyone but adult students are excellent students. They're very focused, they tend to go to class all the time, they tend to get their work done.

Are there any specific fields that they're going into or is it across the board?

The research shows they want nursing, business and education, those were the top three. Wouldn't that be great if we could integrate some of the disciplined sciences " technology, engineering and math " more of the higher paying careers into Project Graduate. That would be one of our next steps is to look at that. We also want to fully integrate the online computer degree programs that are offered through the Kentucky Virtual Campus through Project Graduate.

Do those degrees go to any specific college?

Yes, Kentucky Virtual Campus is really a clearinghouse of all the online programs and courses offered in the state from certificates to state agency professional development all the way through master's programs. All of those programs that are offered through the Kentucky Virtual Campus are from a Kentucky institution or from a Kentucky state agency and they are all accredited.

What else is CPE doing?

There's the Kentucky Adult Learner initiative. That's really going to help pave the way toward transforming colleges and universities into more of an adult friendly environment. Also we plan to promote Project Graduate more. Our institutions currently are taking a self-assessment right now. It's the Adult Friendly Learner initiative self-assessment so they are assessing how friendly they are. Then they will also survey their adult students to see what the adult students have to say about that, so there's going to be some sort of a gap I'm sure but it's all a part of the process to respond to the adult learner and to meet their needs.

With the success of Project Graduate and these other programs are we now on track to meet the goals for 2020?

We are on track according to our degree production figures, our degrees are on track to meet the 2020 goal but we've got to accelerate the pace and we've got to recruit more adults.

What's ahead for the project?

There are so many opportunities coming down the pike. The new military benefits are now transferable to spouses and dependent children so there's going to be an opportunity there to recruit more military back into college as well. I'm really proud of our state, of this organization, of our college presidents and their leadership in stepping back and saying yes we want to work with the adult learner. We're turning the corner. We're looking at how we can do things differently and it's just a real exciting task.

Want to leave your comments?

Sign in or Register to comment.