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Only one third of non-first-time students -- adult learners who re-enroll in college after at least a year away from higher education -- earn a degree after six to eight years, according to a study released today.

The study, based on National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data of 4.5 million non-first-time students, found that only 33.7 percent of those students, who re-entered college between 2005 and 2008, completed their degree. The completion rates for those returning students at public four-year universities and community colleges was 27 percent lower than for first-time students.

"It was no surprise that there was a difference between non-first-time students and traditional students, but I was a little surprised by the magnitude of that difference," said Dave Jarrat, the organizer of the study and vice president of marketing at student coaching service InsideTrack. "There is this push under way at the national level to increase college-going among those who have some college but no degree, but if we don't fix this completion problem, we're just pouring water into a bucket full of holes. Two-thirds of the water is just leaking out."

The study was conducted by the American Council on Education, InsideTrack, NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association. The researchers found that some states are doing a better job at graduating returning students than others. California, a state that accounts for about one-fifth of the country's non-first-time students, has a 24 percent completion rate for returning students. The District of Columbia has the highest rate in the country at 57 percent, but only accounts for 0.1 percent of non-first-time student enrollments.

But size doesn't seem to be a clear indicator of a state's success with non-first-time students. States with smaller populations of returning students, like Delaware, Idaho, and Utah, have completion rates between 43 and 50 percent. Larger states like Florida, New York, and Texas are not lagging far behind with completion rates between 37 and 40 percent, while Wyoming, another state with a small population of non-first-time students, has a graduation rate of just 24 percent. It's not yet clear what differences between states are leading to better outcomes, said Robert Hansen, CEO of UPCEA, but he has an idea why returning students are struggling across the country.

While as much as 75 percent of U.S. college students are nontraditional or adult learners, Hansen said, many colleges are still primarily concerned with traditional-age students. Even IPEDS data do not yet contain information pertaining to non-first-time students.

"At the institutional level, faculty are by and large focused mostly on first-time, full-time students," he said. "Faculty generally tend to be products of that type of education, so they bring that sensibility to their teaching. For universities, the federal government, even those outside of higher education, the conversation is always about just 25 percent of the student population. I think the importance of this study is that, maybe for the first time, it gives us hard data to prove what we've long known and can hopefully trigger a heightened level of analysis and discourse."

Returning students often have to balance college, work and family, and, as many of them are not full-time students, they may find themselves blocked from certain types of financial aid. They tend to have credits from more than one institution -- credits that don't always easily transfer from college to college. "These students are having to repeat the same courses," Hansen said, "making a long and winding road even longer and more winding."

The researchers plan on continuing to analyze the data, Jarrat said, further breaking it down along lines of gender and area of study, and examining what individual states are doing to address the challenges facing non-first-time students. The groups are also beginning to analyze data from another 7 million returning students from the years 2008 to 2013.

"We've only just began to scratch the surface on the data we have," Jarrat said. "But already at this point, there's no denying we have a serious problem. Now we have to figure out what's working, what's not working, and how we can close that gap. We're hoping this is a wake-up call."

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