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A recent study focuses on why students left college and what would incentivize them to return.

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A recent survey of students who stopped out of college suggests that giving them the opportunity to earn microcredentials and academic credit for prior learning could lure them back to higher ed.

The survey of roughly 1,100 former students ages 18 to 64 was conducted in June by StraighterLine, an online course provider, and UPCEA, an association that focuses on professional, online and continuing education. The resulting study, released this week, explored when and why students left college and what factors could prompt them to return.

The study comes at a time when the number of American adults with some college credits but no credential has grown to a whopping 40.4 million, according to 2021 data from the latest National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report.

The central question behind the study was “Is there any incentive an institution can do to get this some credential but no degree or credential population back into their educational journey, whatever that journey looks like?” said Amy Smith, chief learning officer at StraighterLine. The goal was “to understand the motivations, the true lived experience and the perceptions from the students’ voice and the students’ mind.”

“They really want an additional layer of value,” she noted. “That became loud and clear.”

The study found that the majority of respondents were at least halfway through their degree programs when they withdrew: 29 percent were near the midpoint and 28 percent were three-quarters of the way through or almost done with their studies. When asked to identify reasons they initially enrolled in college, 47 percent said it was to meet a personal goal, 37 percent wanted to progress in their careers and 30 percent hoped to increase their salaries. The most common reasons for leaving were financial concerns, family commitments, not feeling that their institution was “the right fit” and time constraints.

Smith and her colleagues were struck by how close to graduating this population was before stopping out.

“These are successful students,” she said. “They know how to do school … they’re successful; they earn credits.”

Gloria Mwase, senior vice president of research, impact, innovation and learning at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, said research from her organization similarly found that a lack of “time and money,” not a dearth of academic chops, leads to stop-outs, especially among adult learners. She has heard “over and over again” of former students waiting to restart their education because they used up some of their allotted federal financial aid or accrued debt during previous college experiences and need to earn enough money to come back.

Despite these barriers, most respondents in the study envisioned themselves returning to college to earn their degrees. Almost a third reported they were “somewhat likely” to return to college, while 29 percent said they were “very likely” or “extremely likely.” Among those who described themselves as very likely to return, 34 percent were motivated by a desire to finish what they started, and 23 percent wanted to progress in or change their careers. Almost half of respondents reported feeling stuck in their careers. Of the group that strongly agreed with feeling stuck, 55 percent said they’d be motivated to go back to raise their salaries, half wanted to complete their goals and 44 percent wanted help making a career change.

Respondents also identified some key factors that were important to them in choosing an institution to complete their degrees; just over two-thirds of respondents highlighted college costs, 56 percent said the speed at which they’d graduate was important, a third cited the number of credits that could be transferred and a third said they wanted “personal, quick, and understandable communication” from the institution.

A significant chunk of respondents reported that microcredentials built into degree programs or course credits given for skills learned outside the classroom would make them more enthusiastic about returning to college. Notably, 78 percent of those surveyed said an institution offering credit for prior learning would increase or greatly increase their interest in finishing their degrees. And 76 percent said the availability of stackable alternative or microcredentials would “increase” or “greatly increase” their desire to return to college.

Smith emphasized that respondents who were undecided about returning to college also found these kinds of options compelling. For example, among respondents who described themselves as “not very likely” to return to college, 66 percent felt stackable microcredentials would increase or greatly increase their interest in finishing their education. Meanwhile, 53 percent of who deemed returning “not at all likely” said microcredentials would make them more enthusiastic about returning.

“Credit for prior learning and microcredentials—the stackability factor—tipped them over into the yes column,” she said. “Those are true enticements.”

Smith noted that it makes sense this population wants these workforce-oriented offerings, given how many report feeling stuck in their jobs and “seeking career fulfillment.”

Terah Crews, CEO of ReUp Education, a company focused on re-enrolling adult learners, agreed that these offerings encapsulate a lot of the drives that encourage former students to return to college. Earning microcredentials along the way, for example, can give them a sense of reaching goals and can help them ask for higher salaries and advance at their jobs more quickly.

“When you have those stepping-stones along the way … they can reap some of the rewards of these motivating factors before actually getting the full diploma at the end of the day,” she said.

Mwase believes microcredentials can play a significant role in bringing adult learners back to college, provided that colleges ensure they’re high-quality and clearly communicate their benefits to students and employers.

“The normal everyday adult learner does not know what value they have,” she said of microcredentials. “There is such a confusion out there these days about what is good or not good” as alternative credentials proliferate nationwide and are offered by academic and nonacademic providers alike. And the sheer variety of these credentials can be “very confusing to employers.”

Similarly, credit for prior learning, or CPL, has the potential to be a major draw to adults who have never attended college and “comebackers,” as long as the opportunity is clearly communicated to them, she said.

“We know that the students who receive CPL have higher GPAs, shorter time to degree, they have better retention rates and better completion rates,” she said. “But the challenge is many of them don’t know about CPL and its benefits. And it is particularly underutilized by students of color, by community college students and by low-income students.”

Alternative credentials and credit for prior learning have long been thought of as a boon for adult learners looking to advance in the workforce, but the study also found that younger stop-outs, ages 18 to 22, were drawn to these options and were even more enthused about microcredentials than their older peers. Among that age group, 92 percent agreed having microcredentials embedded in their programs would make them more interested in finishing up their studies. The same was true for 87 percent of former students ages 41 to 45 and 80 percent of those ages 35 to 40.

“The younger voice is saying, ‘I have a life, I have experience, I have learning outside the classroom. I would like credit for that, and I want people to acknowledge it,’” Smith said.

Smith hopes higher ed leaders will take some lessons from the study. She wants them to focus on offering well-communicated, transparent degree pathways that include stackable credentials and have less “murkiness” and fewer procedural barriers.

“I would challenge higher ed as an industry and higher ed institutions to think about doing that at scale,” she said. “That’s a really hard challenge. But I think that that’s the ask of an adult learner.”

Crews said even small institutional policy changes, such as moving back an enrollment date, can make a difference for re-enrolling these students. But she emphasized that the stakes of failing to re-engage them are high.

“This is someone who may owe $10,000 or $20,000 in debt, who’s working and making $35,000 or $40,000 a year, who may be taking care of kids, who may be taking care of aging parents,” she said. “And they have no career path forward because they’re missing that ticket to the next job or that ticket to financial security or the middle class.”

Meanwhile, colleges need these students to bulk up enrollment as the number of traditional-age students dwindles, and until these students graduate, they’re “not in the employment pipeline for some of the things that are most needed within the states … This is a threefold crisis.”

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