Field Notes: 5 strategies for supporting adult students to reach Wyoming’s higher educational attainment goals

August 3, 2018
  • Admissions and Recruitment
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  • adult students
  • field notes
GettyImages-876965270 "Field Notes" is a regular Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at connect@aacrao.org.

by Mary Aguayo, Vice President for Strategic Enrollment Management at the University of La Verne and Associate Consultant at Ruffalo Noel Levitz, formerly of the University of Wyoming, and Leah A. Barrett, Vice President for Student Affairs at Northern Wyoming Community College District

As we prepare to bring in the entering class of 2018, those of us working in admissions and enrollment often are swept up in the sea of fresh faces and the enthusiasm for the start of the college adventure. This enthusiasm is less visible for working adult students, who fit their education into their lives alongside full-time jobs, parenting their children, and participating in their communities. They are often invisible: taking classes on-line and on the weekends, completing assignments at the kitchen table late into the night. These working adult students represent one of the largest opportunities to change the economic landscape and workforce in America.

States like Wyoming, historically rich in natural resources and sparse in population, are stepping up and taking note. With Lumina Foundation reporting that 41 states having set attainment goals in 2018, this effort is relevant all over the nation.

Wyoming's work on cross-sector engagement
Wyoming began its work on postsecondary educational attainment in 2017. The state acknowledges the significant role that higher education plays in diversifying the economy and ensuring a vibrant future for the state. A critical component of elevating the conversation on higher education attainment has been cross-sector engagement between K-12, higher education, employers, and state government, with the Wyoming Community College Commission and the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees unanimously endorsing increasing the state’s higher educational attainment last November. These efforts culminated in Governor Matt Mead’s January 2018 executive order establishing a statewide attainment goal of 67% by 2025. The governor’s endorsement of a very ambitious attainment goal is part of a broader economic diversification effort that recognizes postsecondary credential attainment as essential to stability for the Wyoming economy.

"States serious about reaching their attainment goals cannot afford to ignore adult students."

 

States cannot improve their higher education attainment solely by attracting more traditional-aged high school graduates into the pipeline. The math just doesn’t work. Wyoming, with its population of a half million people, has 87,000 working adults with some college and no degree and just 5,000 high school graduates per year. While these numbers are small relative to other states, the trends remain the same. Wyoming and other states serious about reaching their attainment goals cannot afford to ignore adult students.


Strategies for adult students

Adults don’t need or want many of the amenities that colleges and universities have historically used to build a class. Instead the focus should be on a few key strategies to engage working adults:

  1. Transfer pathways, including stackable and certificate programs, to ensure that students are on a trajectory to a credential and their credits apply towards their broader goals

  2. Job-ready programs of study, so working adults can increase their earning potential immediately and fulfil the workforce needs of their community

  3. Hybrid and flexible coursework year-round, so school can fit around a career and a family and students can complete credits more quickly

  4. Access to support services, to help adult students utilize personal, financial, and academic resources and provide tools to help them to balance life’s competing demands

  5. Need-based financial aid and simple pricing, without hidden fees and confusing costs, to ensure maximum transparency and so that a college education can be within everyone’s reach (keep in mind emergency aid and debt forgiveness so that minor setbacks don’t derail a student’s ability to complete their program)

With these five priorities in the minds of policy makers, institutions will be well-prepared to begin a campaign to enroll and re-enroll adults in higher education. Developing a statewide goal for postsecondary educational attainment, gathering stakeholders together to grapple with equity gaps and look for solutions, and connecting the dots with a statewide plan to re-engage potential adult students are each critical steps in increasing attainment. This is transformative for the students we serve and can pave the way to welcome participation of post-traditional adults whose needs have not been met by traditional higher education. In doing so, enrollment managers can address the challenge of shifting demographics and states can move the needle on meeting higher education attainment goals.