Recruiting adult learners in a crowded market

By Lisa Qing

Nationwide, community colleges are experiencing pervasive enrollment declines as the economy recovers, demographics shift, and competition from for-profit and four-year universities grows. The bulk of these enrollment declines are concentrated among adult learners, or students age 25 and over. In Fall 2014, community colleges reported a 6.7% decline in adult learners since the previous year, compared to only a 1.5% decline in traditional-age students. As community colleges become increasingly tuition-dependent in response to state funding volatility, they must recapture adult learner enrollments to maximize resources and meet local workforce demand.

Tuition reimbursement an underused recruitment opportunity

Colleges seeking to recruit adult learners will likely find allies within industry; just as colleges want to enroll new students, employers want to upskill their workers. A recent report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce revealed that U.S. employers spent $177 billion on formal training in 2013.

Of that $177 billion, nearly $28 billion went toward tuition reimbursement. Over half of all U.S. employers offer this benefit, often as a means to recruit high-potential workers and retain them as they advance their skills. However, only an estimated 5% of employees with access to tuition reimbursement take advantage of it. For workers, failing to use this benefit is a missed opportunity to earn a discounted degree; for colleges, it’s a missed opportunity to enroll students with a steady source of financial support.

Eliminating upfront cost of using tuition reimbursement

Why do so few workers use tuition reimbursement benefits? Like all adult learners, these workers commonly struggle to balance school with competing work and family commitments. However, many of them also face an unexpected financial barrier: their employer will pay for their courses, but not until they complete those courses with satisfactory grades. From registration until the end of the term, the worker must cover the cost of enrollment.

Nine years ago, Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) set out to eliminate this out-of-pocket cost to students. DMACC introduced a deferred payment plan that allows students who qualify for tuition reimbursement to postpone billing until the term ends. To opt into this plan, a student simply submits a signed promissory note to the college guaranteeing that they will pay their bill within 30 days after grades are issued. This 30-day window gives students time to submit their grades to their employer and receive reimbursement before paying the college.

Adult Learners

Since DMACC introduced the deferred payment plan in Spring 2006, the number of participants has grown rapidly from just 10 students in its first semester to 170 students last fall. Moreover, this plan has allowed DMACC to recruit working adults unable or unwilling to pay the upfront costs associated with using tuition reimbursement.

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