The number of adults with college credits, but no credential, continues to grow in the U.S. The most recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse show that as of July 2021, this population has grown to 40.4 million. The increase can be seen across every state in the nation and is driven by 2.3 million new students stopping out, as well as a lack of re-enrollment. Moreover, disparities persist between White and Black college students. According to the U.S. Census, 16% of White adults have college credit but no degree, whereas 19% of Black adults have college credit without a credential. This is compounded by the steady decline in Black student enrollment over recent years. Adult learners have unique needs when compared to traditional age students and we must be creative in our outreach, recruitment, retention, re-engagement and completion strategies to support them, building a coalition of support that encompasses all of our partners and stakeholders.

As I considered this thought, I’m reminded of a time last year when I attended an event at the Apple Inc. headquarters. During the event, I kept talking about how Apple should reinvest in California community colleges through a financial commitment, paid internships and apprenticeship programs (and not just trying to sell us their products). Higher education leaders must be constantly examining their surroundings and partnerships while leveraging institutional strengths to meet the needs of students, especially adult learners. Full disclosure: At Compton College, we have a partnership with Apple that is robust and the professional development we are providing to faculty with Apple is amazing. However, I truly believe many Fortune 500 companies in the state of California are not doing enough and should be doing more to support community college students, especially through paid internships and apprenticeship programs. If we really want to re-engage adult learners, it is going to take real partnerships that lead to employment with livable wages (Not minimum wage). We practitioners must also change our mindset with regard to unpaid work experiences for students, which ultimately promotes an unfair system that only students of a certain economic status can access. We know that many adult learners, many of whom are students of color, need money to support themselves and their family. In the U.S., Black college students are more likely than any other race/ethnicity to be student parents, making up 33% of this population.

States and institutions must engage students with some college, but no degree and encourage re-entry into higher education in order to combat recent enrollment decline and address racial disparities. First-time college and dual enrollment students are important, but it is a missed opportunity to continue to ignore the growing number of adults who once pursued a post-secondary credential but have since stopped out. In order to re-engage these learners and support their re-entry, we must increase affordability, accessibility, student support, and paid employment opportunities within higher education, especially for our Black learners who are disproportionately affected by these issues. Otherwise, we will continue to leave behind a large and growing population of students that would greatly benefit from earning a post-secondary credential. 

It is also important that states publicly prioritize this population. Promising strategies and policy making for states include the increasing push for Promise programs. At Compton College, this fall we expanded our Oliver W. Conner Promise Program to include any first-time students. As many know, promise programs address affordability and promote college access. 

Additionally, in California, Assembly 2627 – Bauer-Kahan. Electronically collected personal information: local agencies: the California Community Colleges: memorandum of understanding, was passed, and provides California community colleges with an opportunity locally to provide information to the adult populations about our institution. Assembly 2627 allows data-sharing agreements with our local agencies to receive directory information. At Compton College, we have modified a Memorandum of Understanding that was developed by Contra Costa Community College District (Thank you, Chancellor Mojdeh Mehdizadeh), in which we are asking for directory information to recruit potential adults to enroll at Compton College. 

Locally, institutional campaigns can be used to reach adult learners and promote the benefits of re-enrollment. We have a call center operated by students that calls stopped-out students. This semester, we implemented a new program to call students who drop any class to see a counselor. Each week, those calls are happening. Also, each semester we are engaging students who were enrolled in the prior semester but did not return. Some of my critics will say, this is overboard and a model that the for-profits have implemented. I respond yes, and they have been very successful with this strategy. Some of these strategies are helpful, especially critical as public confidence in the value of higher education has declined (You can see one of my other thoughts on that topic)  

Recruitment is only one part of the equation, as we know. To retain these students and help them complete, we must address adult students’ basic needs, including food and housing support. At Compton College, we are providing that support even without the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund and American Rescue Plan funds. 

If you don’t believe me about this connection between recruitment and basic needs, allow me to share a story with you about a Compton College student. For the past couple of weeks, I have personally witnessed an adult student who is taking Compton College classes at the Paramount Adult School. Although she doesn’t take her classes here, she still comes to our campus everyday. Why? To pick up her one free meal per day from the Everytable cafeteria. Then on Fridays, this same student comes to our Everytable cafeteria to see if there are any leftovers for the week to take home for the weekend.

Would this student stop out without our one-meal per day program? There’s no way to know for sure. But what we do know, for certain, is this: services like these are helping our most vulnerable students persist. At Compton College for the 2021-2022 year, our student success rate for the whole campus was 68%. Now here’s an even more exciting statistic. Students who participated in the food resources program completed at even higher numbers. These students saw success rates of 74%!

 In closing, as we use targeted outreach and implement support services, messaging is crucial. It is important that not only the value of higher education is conveyed to this population, but also that students know adequate and ongoing support will be in place to help them succeed. And it’s incumbent on us higher education leaders to make the connections where we can, whether that be with Apple Inc., Everytable, our elected leaders, etc., to support our adult students