Schools Step Up Efforts to Attract Adult Learners into College Programs

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by Jamal Eric Watson

Over the past decade, traditional colleges and universities have lost ground in the race to win back minority dropouts who have opted many years later to complete their degrees online. 

The University of Phoenix, a for-profit owned by the Apollo Group, Inc., has steadily attracted older minority students who enjoy the flexibility of completing a degree program while working and raising a family. For many of these students, the desire to return to college has always been there, but obstacles and circumstances got in the way.

University officials say students, on average, take classes at five colleges before deciding to enroll at the open-admissions institution. The average age of a University of Phoenix undergraduate is about 36.

There is a push across academia, however, to find innovative ways to recruit and retain this population. Nontraditional students are the most at risk for quitting school, according to a  report released last year by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research group headquartered in New York .

Last month, the Lumina Foundation for Education announced a new commitment to advancing adult degree attainment by providing $14.8 million in grants over four years to organizations focused on helping 6.6 million adults with some prior college credits earn a degree. 

“There is growing evidence that adults who have gone to college but not received a degree are looking for a second chance but need the right kind of information and motivation to help them succeed,” says Lumina President and CEO Jamie Merisotis. “Given demographic trends and attainment rates among young adults, it is highly unlikely that the nation can meet its growing need for college-educated workers only by focusing on recent high school graduates.”

Meanwhile, Rider University, located in central New Jersey, has launched an innovative program called Fomentamos Tu Futuro targeted toward Latino adults over age 25.

College officials say Fomentamos Tu Futuro’s goal is to alleviate the obstacles that Latino adult students face in obtaining a college degree. Latino students enrolled in the program receive scholarship assistance, bilingual advisement and access to a variety of services that Rider offers to traditional students, such as career counseling and tutoring.

Radio personality Tom Joyner recently launched his own distance-learning initiative called HBCUsOnline.com aimed at offering an online education that mirrors the experience of attending a historically Black institution. Reaching Black students who have dropped out of HBCUs is important since the graduation rate at many HBCUs fall in the 20 percent range.

Such efforts seek to duplicate the success in reaching adult learners that the University of Phoenix has enjoyed. The university leads all institutions in bachelor’s degrees awarded to African-Americans, and, of the 500,000 students enrolled, about 30 percent are African-Americans.

Many education activists have questioned the University of Phoenix’s marketing tactics. They charge that many African-Americans take out high-interest loans to finance a college degree from Phoenix only to learn that some employers do not consider the degree equivalent to one from a traditional college or university.

For their part, traditional colleges are trying to attract adult learners with hybrid programs — a combination of online and face-to-face instruction.

Tahirah Duncan, director of the Educational Opportunity Center, a TRIO program headquartered at The Pennsylvania State University, says the students she encounters tend to favor a traditional college over a purely online degree programs but like the option of taking distance-learning courses. Duncan works with about 2,000 adults, mostly minorities, in western Pennsylvania who are looking to return to college.

“We’re just looking to get them back in school,” says Duncan.

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