07/18/2012 11:28 am ET | Updated Sep 17, 2012

Encouraging Adult College Completion

I recently found myself in the emergency waiting room (back spasms) and overheard a conversation between what I can only assume was a RN administrator and a new nursing student. The conversation focused on the administrator relieving the student's anxiety about returning to school. The student was concerned about writing papers using "APA" format, mastering Excel, fitting in with the other students, and keeping up with classwork.

I forgot to mention that both women seemed to be in their mid-to-late fifties and since their backs were to me, I couldn't really tell which one was the student and which was the administrator. The student relayed that it had been thirty-plus years since she'd been in school and she was nervous about not only re-entering school, but also balancing college and the many responsibilities she had to her immediate and extended family. I was eavesdropping on a real-life example of what is now a "typical" college entry conversation.

In the midst of many ambitious and time-framed national and state-level college completion initiatives, many in higher education are looking outside the "traditional" education pipeline to fulfill degree completion goals. There has been a strong focus in recent years to increase the number of adults who earn a postsecondary degree and among them, a special interest in adults who already have some college or credential. They have been given various names, such as "near completers," "ready adults," and "comebackers," but they are all poised to significantly improve degree completion.

Wide recognition of the importance of encouraging adults to return to college has attracted the attention of a number of key stakeholders in the college completion agenda. The U.S. Department of Education College Completion Toolkit includes an emphasis on reaching adults with some college but no degree and both Lumina Foundation and Kresge Foundation have been supporting state and institutional efforts that directly target adults for number of years.

The recent economic downturn has added an even more urgent and tangible rationale for adult degree completion; to meet the workforce demands of the future and to help the unemployed and underemployed develop marketable skills. There is no doubt that a more educated and talented population will have a significant economic impact in our nation's economy.
But how do we encourage adults to return to college at a time when their lives are packed full with family and work commitments?

A recent Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education report "Going the Distance in Adult College Completion" detailed numerous barriers at both the state and institutional levels that, if addressed, could help raise degree completion rates by adults with prior college including: Improved outreach to adults to help attract them back to college, more streamlined readmission processes, and transparent but fair acceptance of transfer credit and credit for prior learning.

Not only are there discussions at that the national, state, and institutional levels, but cross-sector involvement at the regional and state levels are also gathering momentum around adult degree completion.

A number of cities involved in CEOs for Cities Talent Dividend Competition are focused primarily on adult degree completers. Philadelphia's The Graduate! Network, Inc. targets adult completion through a plethora of direct services, strong messaging campaign, and policy advocacy at every level. Additionally the organization partners with other local access and success organizations, the mayor's office, and the business community to strategize around adult completion.

The Center for Houston's Future is engaging their local business community including key stakeholders in the IT, oil, gas, and healthcare community to tackle challenges common to adults returning to school including flexible employee tuition reimbursement and flexible work schedules.

And a number of cities such as St. Louis and Louisville are working with employers in their community to assess the effectiveness and relevancy of their current employee tuition reimbursement programs and to assess the needs of their employers related to continuing education.

I was inspired by the conversation I overheard in the ER waiting room and wish I'd reached out to the "student" to let her know how much I admire and respect her decision to return to school. I would have told her that while daunting there are thousands of folks across the country working hard to remove barriers and implement promising strategies to make her college experience as easy and meaningful as possible.

Noël Harmon, Ph.D. is the National Director of the Talent Dividend at CEOs for Cities.