Colleges generally do a lousy job of keeping tabs on the graduation rates of their adult students. But that may change if accreditors follow the lead of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).
Nontraditional students who are adults and attend college part-time are a large, growing segment of American higher education. They will also play a big role in the success of the national college “completion agenda.” Yet most colleges do not track the graduation or retention rates of adult students, in part because nobody makes them, according to the results of a new survey .
WASC, however, is in the process of requiring institutions to report detailed information about those two key measures of student success, for all student populations, including the nontraditional ones.
That requirement would be a major shift for colleges. A whopping 77 percent of institutions do not know the graduation rate for their adult students, according to the results of the survey, which was conducted jointly by InsideTrack, a student coaching service, and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association Center for Research and Consulting.
Furthermore, only 16 percent of the 77 colleges that responded (which represented a spectrum of institution types) said they have a good understanding of the root causes of why their adult students drop out.
That means colleges are failing to collect information that would help them do a better job of serving nontraditional students, said Dave Jarrat, vice president of marketing at InsideTrack. And by failing to collect information, colleges lack reference points.
“There’s no way for them to compare to others,” Jarrat said.
77% of colleges do not know the graduation rate for their adult students.
16% of colleges know why their adult students drop out.
Another finding from the survey helps explain why colleges have generally turned a blind eye to whether adult students get to graduation: 43 percent of colleges said their central administration values the money that adult programs bring in, but that the administration provides little support to those programs.
Jarrat said adult students “tend to be viewed as cash cows” by colleges.
As a result, colleges are content to keep enrolling adult students, who enroll part-time and are cheaper to serve than the labor-intensive, high-touch business of teaching traditional-aged students on a residential campus, even if those adult students aren’t earning degrees. And institutions would collect more tuition revenue if a larger number of adult students stuck with it. But because accreditors and the federal government do not require them to collect graduation and retention rate data for part-time, adult students, there is little impetus for colleges to take the lead.
It also doesn’t help that data on the segment are hard to collect, and generally compare unfavorably to completion rates for traditional students, said Barbara Karlin, provost at Golden Gate University.
Many adult students arrive with credits, sometimes earned at multiple institutions or from prior-learning assessment  – credit for college-level learning outside of the academic setting, such as for work experience or military training.
“No one even understands them,” Karlin said.
Adult students often “stop out” multiple times, and bounce around several institutions before earning a degree. Even a determined part-time, adult student can take eight years or more to earn a bachelor’s degree. As a result, an institution that serves a large number of adults would likely see its six-year graduation rate take a dip if it begins tracking and reporting numbers for adult students. That's because even a 35 percent six-year rate wouldn’t be bad for this population, at least compared to most institutions today.
The completion agenda may be helping end some of the indifference in higher education about the success of adult students.
WASC has taken a substantial step in this direction with the recent release of a template  for tracking undergraduate retention and completion rates, which also includes metrics for measuring adult student performance. A template  for graduate programs is also in the works.
The accreditor has begun a pilot program in which eight of its accredited institutions will use the template next fall, said Teri Cannon, executive vice president of WASC’s Senior College Commission. Over the next three years, however, WASC plans to require all of its four-year institutions to collect the information to maintain their accreditation. And that means graduation rates for all students, including adults, will be part of the mix.
“We’re going to be asking every institution whether they have a review or not,” Cannon said.
WASC has created a new panel of experts on student retention to review the reports. They will determine what is acceptable on graduation rates and retention, which is no easy task.
The panel “will identify institutions that can do better,” Cannon said. And in those cases, a problem with graduation rates – including with adult students – could be integrated into a college's comprehensive review.
“We’ve long seen this as a key indicator of institutional effectiveness,” said Cannon, who added that the national policy focus on completion also helped motivate WASC to ask for the new information.
A group of experts from private, nonprofit colleges banded together to advise WASC on what metrics work for tracking adult student completion. Golden Gate, which enrolls a large number of adult students, played an active role in that effort.
Definitions are particularly slippery when talking about adult students, Karlin said. For example, part-time students typically can enroll at multiple dates during the year. And some may only take one course per year. So it is difficult to determine what constitutes an adult student cohort.
Golden Gate recently conducted a major review of how it tracks adult students, and the college now measures the segment’s performance in several areas around retention. Not all the numbers are flattering.
“We are getting some stuff that’s helpful,” Karlin said, but also “scary in some areas.”
That new data, however, has helped the university make several improvements. For example, Karlin said Golden Gate has begun a program where faculty members reach out to its online students to boost student engagement. And the university now requires that all new students, including adults who are enrolled part-time, take a gateway course that helps them navigate college life.
Graduation rates are going to lag for adult students, because the pressures of work and raising children often intervene with their studies. But with better measurement, colleges can improve how they serve this often mysterious group, experts said.
“Some of this we can’t control,” said Karlin. “Some of it we can.”