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I heard a student offer an idea on Monday that hit me with the force of the retrospectively obvious.

Does your campus have advisers specifically for returning adult students?

It would make sense. Returning adults—say, over age 22 or so—may have very different needs than 18-year-olds. For one thing, they’re much likelier to be parents themselves. Often, they have to juggle childcare, work for pay and classes. Sometimes it’s even more complicated than that: they may have some ugly conflicts with the noncustodial parent, which can be a minefield in itself. Add abrupt changes to childcare arrangements and some nasty car repairs and the issues the adviser needs to address become much more challenging.

It isn’t just about career choice or course selection. Much of it is about helping students play the hand they were dealt well enough to climb out of the situation. That may involve helping students navigate social services and/or figuring out how to reshuffle daily routines when precarious arrangements abruptly fall through.

Financial aid issues can arise. If a student stops and starts too many times, they can fall afoul of “satisfactory academic progress” and lose financial aid eligibility. For many students, losing financial aid means dropping out. And these issues don’t typically come in isolation. A student who has dropped out a couple of times may have done so because they have a parent who can’t work and a car that isn’t reliable. But repeatedly dropping out, which may sometimes be the right short-term decision, can make it harder to get a credential that can help them move up in the world.

A really good adviser for returning adult students would need the usual curricular knowledge, but they would also need an above-average familiarity with social services, financial aid rules and the realities of living an economically precarious life with children. That’s a tall order, but that’s what many students are up against. It would probably require some fairly robust cross-training, as well as some ongoing professional development and possibly some flexibility around union rules. But the payoff would be worth it.

In some cases, the right move for a student might be out of a credit-bearing degree and toward a noncredit certificate. That would require training advisers differently and changing some internal institutional incentives. Not all attrition is bad; if a student moves from a program that just doesn’t make sense for them to one that does, even if it’s shorter, that’s a good thing. Ideally, of course, those shorter credentials would be stackable, so as things fall into place the student can come back and finish a degree.

A student who navigates community college that way will show up in the numbers as a dropout, but that’s really measurement error. The point should be to help the student build a better life. If that requires moving in small steps, and stopping out every so often to deal with life, then so be it.

At a previous college, we structured what used to be called the prenursing sequence around students’ lives: they could get the C.N.A. to get quick work, then come back and apply it toward an L.P.N. credential, then stop to make money, then come back for the R.N. The “on-time” graduation numbers weren’t great, but on-time graduation really wasn’t an option for most. They could make it through, and many did, but it was going to take time. I was proud that we were able to build a program that reflected the realities of student life. It’s harder to do that than one might think; financial aid rules, performance-based funding rules and long-standing institutional habits can all get in the way. But it’s worth doing.

Kudos to the student who spoke the obvious. She was right. It’s a tall order, but it’s the right order.

Has anyone out there seen this done especially well? If so, are there lessons learned that you could share? I can be reached at deandad (at-sign) gmail (dot) com, on Twitter at deandad, or on Mastodon at deandad (at-sign)


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