How an Oprah presidency could help colleges

Oprah Winfrey may not choose to run for president in 2020, but her candidacy could shine a light on the barriers facing adult student stopouts, argues Zakiya Smith, a strategy director at Lumina Foundation.

Oprah, a self-made billionaire, was once one of the nearly 40 million Americans with some college, but no degree, Smith writes in Medium. Oprah's experience stopping out of college could launch a national conversation about the value of a bachelor's degree—especially for adult learners, writes Smith, formerly a senior White House education policy advisor for the Obama administration.

Americans are growing more skeptical of a college degree's value, Smith writes. Only 49% of Americans believe that a college education leads to greater financial earnings, compared with 47% of Americans who don't, according to one telephone survey.

Although respondents are divided about whether a bachelor's degree is worth the cost, research has shown that, on average, graduates fare better than those without a college degree. Bachelor's degree holders now earn 67% more than those with a high school degree, and $20,000 more annually than those with only some college, writes Smith.

Related: Leverage tuition reimbursement to recruit adult learners

But for adult students, the weight of external responsibilities can make college especially difficult to navigate. Often, seemingly small logistical setbacks—like missing a textbook—can lead adult learners to stop out.

For Oprah, it took a decade after leaving school to finally earn her bachelor's degree from Tennessee State University, writes Smith. To complete the final class she needed to graduate, Oprah worked with administrators to create a course timetable that worked for her busy schedule, she adds.

Like Oprah, many adult learners struggle to balance college with external commitments. In fact, the majority of adults who left school attributed their decision to problems with juggling work and school, nearly twice as much as the next most common issue, tuition affordability, writes Meacie Fairfax, a senior analyst, for EAB's Community College Blog. This impact is especially felt by older students who tend to have more life commitments outside of school, she adds.

While Oprah's professional success gave her the flexibility to finish college on her own terms, more institutions need to ease the path to re-enrollment for those without celebrity influence, Smith argues (Smith, Medium, 3/5).

Related: How to support stopouts and prevent dropouts

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