How 3 colleges keep adult learners on track to graduate

As more students with non-traditional characteristics step onto campus, some colleges and universities work to ease the path for enrollment and persistence, writes Lisa Ward for the Wall Street Journal.

Nearly half of students enrolled in colleges and universities are 25 or older, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And for adult learners, the weight of external responsibilities can make college especially difficult to navigate. About 38% of students with outside financial, work, or family obligations leave within their first year, the Lumina Foundation reports.

One reason why could be the traditionally "rigid" academic calendar, according to EAB research. Many community college students have hectic schedules that compete with the centuries-old academic calendar.

That's why some colleges and universities give students the option to take accelerated or flexible courses. For example, students at Bellevue University can take four-week courses on campus or online, any time of year. Students enrolled in these courses have the benefit of a flexible schedule while still staying on track to graduate in four years.

At Bellevue, 63% of the undergraduate student population is enrolled in a compressed course program. And for students in these courses, the graduation rate for a bachelor's degree in business is 70%, compared with 24% for students in traditional courses.

Other colleges, like the University of Wisconsin—Madison (UW), offer open-entry or early-exit courses designed to move students through lessons at their own pace. Students can skip lessons if they pass assessments and demonstrate mastery of particular skills or competencies. And they can slow down and work with an academic success coach to learn new material, then take the assessment when they’re ready.

Not only do these courses accommodate students' busy schedules, but they also save students time and money. Students typically move through courses more quickly than would be allowed in a traditional class, and at UW, students taking flexible courses can on average earn a bachelor's degree six months earlier than students in traditional courses.

A number of community colleges are also adopting accelerated programs, such as 7-8 week mini-mesters, intended to give students more opportunities to accumulate credits and provide non-traditional students with the flexibility they need.

Amarillo College in Texas adopted the mini-mester program and saw a 30-percentage point increase in course completion rates. And as students continued to accumulate credits, they completed at almost a 100% rate (Ward, Wall Street Journal, 3/25/18).

Read more about the adult learner market

Adult learners: Who they are & what they want from college

60% of adults have considered returning to college, but worry about cost

3 tweaks colleges make so adult learners can focus on learning

4 things adult learners want out of college

To recruit more adult students, think like Amazon

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