THE BLOG
11/15/2012 03:35 pm ET Updated Jan 15, 2013

Four Steps to Help Adult Students Stay in School

The largest group among the 21.6 million Americans attending college this year is that of students age 25 and older, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. These students will be ahead of the curve, considering that the fastest job growth is in occupations requiring postsecondary education and a college-educated workforce is the driver of a sustainable economy.

Yet college enrollment does not guarantee that every student will earn a diploma, and in some cases, college completion rates may be as low as 18 percent, according to Chronicle of Higher Education data. Adult students in particular often face more difficulties and distractions than traditional students, including family responsibilities, full-time jobs, and additional financial obligations.

Amidst these additional stressors, how can adult students safeguard their college success? A good place to start is by understanding the common reasons why many students drop out of college, and then taking precautions to address them.

How age impacts students' stresses

Apollo Research Institute conducted a study of more than 4,400 adult students at 1,300 postsecondary institutions to identify the psychosocial issues that influence degree completion and to determine the most effective sources of support.

The study, To Graduate or Drop Out? found that adult students share several common anxieties. For instance, they worry about the financial burden of college; having to take time away from friends, family, and other pursuits; altering their life routines; and not being competent enough to achieve a degree.

While all students expressed anxiety over college-related expenses, several generational differences emerged regarding other common stresses. For example, after finances, Baby Boomers worried most about their intellectual abilities to do college work, while Generation Xers and Millennnials were anxious about not having enough time to spend with family and friends. Also, compared with the other generations, Millennials more frequently reported that these types of issues might actually cause them to drop out of college.

With these findings in mind, following are steps adult students can take to contain these anxieties and reach their educational goals:

Have a plan. Going to college is a multi-year commitment, so it is essential to clarify your goals for the degree you seek and define exactly what you stand to gain. If you don't know why you are making this commitment, you are more likely to let competing priorities crowd out your education. Write out your goals and post them in a prominent place so they are clearly visible whenever the going gets tough.

Assess your investment. List all that is required to achieve a degree, including your chosen program's tuition and fees, transportation costs, books, equipment such as a computer or laptop, and of course, your time. In addition to class time, be sure to include study time and any other requirements such as a practicum or internships. If you have children, factor in childcare costs, as you will need time away to attend classes, study, and complete assignments.

Take stock of all the resources you can identify to make this investment, both monetary and in-kind. Don't forget the support you may be able to find from family and friends, or even employers: An Apollo Research Institute report on tuition benefit programs indicates that many organizations offer some form of educational assistance to attract and retain a competitive workforce.

Compare your investment with your goals and the return you can expect to receive in higher wages and career advancement. Apollo Research Institute studies have shown that adult learners can expect to receive a return on educational investment (ROEI) of between 22 percent and 53 percent, depending on their academic major. Those kinds of figures will help keep your eyes on the prize of achieving a degree.

Bolster your support networks. Share your commitment and your expected outcomes with your family, friends, employer, and coworkers. After you clarify your goals and what you will need to reach them, ask for their help. You may be surprised at how many "cheerleaders" you will have. If you have school-age children, find opportunities to spend time together working on assignments or visiting the library. Engage them in any family activities at "mommy or daddy's school," and remember that you are setting a good example for your children's life-long learning.

Use your college's resources and create new social networks. Resources such as tutoring, study groups, and career counseling at your school can do a lot to ease your stress as you pursue your degree. Be sure to investigate these and use them to full advantage. In addition, seek out other adult students and be intentional about creating new social networks among those who share your educational goals. You will be able to share coping skills and create a strong support network with those who understand the challenges you face. And, you may discover another payoff along the way: long-lasting friends and colleagues.